A federal appellate court on Tuesday ruled a lower court erred when it cleared Lincoln police officers of violating the constitutional rights of a double amputee forced out of his car at gunpoint during a traffic stop.
In a 2-1 decision, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court sent the case back for further proceedings and ruled the officers' actions weren't shielded from liability as a judge decided last year when he dismissed the case.
Tuesday's decision is the latest in a legal fight that began in 2012 over the incident, which Leroy Duffie said left him wounded mentally.
Around 10:30 p.m. on Sept. 3, 2011, Lincoln police pulled over Duffie's 1998 Chevrolet Astro van as he was southbound on 27th Street.
The officers were looking for a man who had brandished a handgun in a "'90s style Astro van" parked outside a convenience store.
They didn't pull over Duffie's van for any traffic violation, according to court documents. Instead they were looking for the suspicious person from the convenience store.
Ordered out at gunpoint, Duffie fell to the ground as one of his prosthetic legs detached, he said. He knocked his teeth out and tore one of his rotator cuffs.
Officers handcuffed Duffie as he lay on the ground and searched his car finding only a paintball gun Duffie said he planned to donate to a local charity.
After several minutes, the officers seized the paintball gun and released Duffie.
Judge Lavenski Smith, who wrote for the appeals court majority, took issue with the reason Duffie's van was pulled over in the first place and that officers continued a high-risk traffic stop with a mismatched suspect description.
In June 2015, Senior U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf granted the city's request for summary judgment, ending the case without a trial.
Kopf ruled that the officers' actions were protected by legal doctrine called qualified immunity, which shields police and other government officials from liability for mistakes made acting in good faith.
There wasn't evidence, Kopf said, that the officers intended to cause harm to Duffie.
But in his appeal, Duffie alleged the stop itself violated his constitutional rights to be free of searches and seizures without reasonable suspicion.
Ruling in favor of Duffie, the appellate court said qualified immunity doesn't protect police when their actions violate someone's established constitutional rights.
Smith started with the underlying reason for the stop: the young man with the gun.
A report of a person with a handgun isn't enough to create a reasonable suspicion of a crime, Smith wrote, noting that in Nebraska and Lincoln people can openly carry handguns.
Also, the clerks reported only that the young man with the gun acted strangely. Though one clerk saw the man blowing smoke off the barrel, the clerk didn't say it was directed toward him, Smith wrote.
After spotting the van, Officer Nathan Kaiser tried to see the driver to compare his appearance to the description of the suspicious person, Smith said. Darkness made that harder, the judge said.
"Nonetheless, an objectively reasonable police officer would not mistake a 58-year-old bald man for a young adult with hair."
"Officers may not turn a blind eye to facts that undermine reasonable suspicion."
Judge Bobby Shepherd, the lone dissenting judge, said he believed the stop was constitutional because officers were told to be on the lookout for the van as part of an investigation and that police don't have to first exclude the possibility the man at the store lawfully possessed the gun to justify stopping Duffie.
Reasonable suspicion relies on the factual and practical considerations prudent people make in everyday life, Shepherd said.
The appellate judges didn't specifically address Duffie's claims that the officers mocked him as he lay on the ground, as he alleged in his lawsuit.
Duffie is seeking more than $600,000 in damages. His attorney declined to comment on Tuesday.
Lincoln City Attorney Jeff Kirkpatrick said he was disappointed in the appellate court's decision.
He can understand the court's sympathy toward Duffie, Kirkpatrick said, but he believes the officers acted appropriately.
The city could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court or wait for the case to be tried in federal court.