U.S. Supreme Court rekindles the flame on the Robbie Tolan case
19th May 2014 · 0 Comments
By Jeffrey L. Boney
(Special to the NNPA from the Houston Forward-Times) – A case that gained national attention from a racially-charged incident that happened in Bellaire, Texas, involving then 23-year old Robbie Tolan, has once again made national news, as the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled on Monday that the police officers who shot the young, unarmed Black man in his front yard, in the mistaken belief that he stole a car, were improperly granted immunity.
With their ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated a civil lawsuit filed by Tolan, in which he sued the city of Bellaire and two white Bellaire police officers; Officer John Edwards and Sgt. Jeffrey Cotton in May 2009, alleging unconstitutional excessive force was used when Tolan was shot. The suit also accused Bellaire and police of racial profiling, false arrests and racial harassment.
In the civil case, U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon granted the officers immunity in 2012 and the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that decision. With their ruling on Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court summarily vacated that decision, in essence stating that the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals “failed to view the evidence at summary judgment in the light most favorable to (Robbie) Tolan with respect to the central facts of this case.”
Upon hearing the news, Tolan was relieved.
“This is what we’ve been praying for, and expecting,” said Tolan. “My family, friends, and many in the Greater Houston community have remained in full support of me over these past five plus years and we are even more revitalized going forward.”
December 31, 2008, was an unforgettable day for Tolan and his cousin, Anthony Cooper, as they were arriving home from making a late night run to Jack-in-the-Box on New Year’s Eve. Upon pulling up in the driveway of their Bellaire home, the two young men were aggressively confronted by the two Bellaire police officers. According to Tolan, as he and his cousin walked up their driveway to go inside their home, they spotted an unidentified man coming towards them out of nowhere pointing a gun, while also holding a flashlight. Unaware that the armed man was an officer, the two young men became increasingly alarmed as they were asked to lie face down on the ground and not move. Upon hearing all the commotion outside, Tolan’s mother and other relatives came outside to find out what was going on. Relatives claim Tolan’s mother was being pushed against the wall by one of the officers, which prompted Tolan to rise up and ask the officers what was being done to his mother. As a result of his lifting himself up to question the officers, the unarmed Tolan was brutally shot in his chest by Sgt. Cotton.
Sadly, after further investigation, Tolan’s vehicle was found to have not been stolen, nor was either man found to have been armed. What makes this incident even more troubling was the fact that the license plate number that the officers entered into their computer was the wrong one, leading them to make the wrong call on the wrong alleged suspects.
A grand jury indicted and acquitted Sgt. Cotton, after only charging him with aggravated assault. This is what led Tolan and his family to file the civil lawsuit, which eventually ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court because of the decisions by U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The family is hoping that they can now get their day in court, because the lawsuit has never officially gone to trial.
It’s been a little over five years since Tolan was sitting in a Houston hospital bed with a punctured lung and a bullet lodged in his liver, but the pain and outcome of that ordeal still stings. The bullet still remains lodged in his liver and the injuries Tolan sustained in 2008 ended his pursuit of becoming a professional baseball player, something that Tolan’s father, Bobby, spent over 13-years in Major League Baseball doing.
Tolan believes that it is unfair that his baseball career was stifled and his health compromised because of a senseless act of racial profiling and stereotyping. The Tolan family attorney, Martin Siegel, shared his thoughts on the ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“A jury should decide whether Robbie’s civil rights were violated,” said Siegel. “Robbie continues to suffer from the after effects of the shooting, and we hope this decision will bring him closer to having his day in court. We’re pleased the Supreme Court agreed that the case should go forward.”
William Helfand, who serves as the attorney for Sgt. Cotton and the city of Bellaire, said the Supreme Court didn’t disagree with the district judge’s ruling that there was no constitutional violation, and instead focused on a procedural concern regarding the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal’s analysis of the case.
‘’I imagine that on review, I don’t expect any change in the decision,’’ said Helfand.
The case involving Tolan has been one of the nation’s most high-profile, police brutality cases in recent memory and was one of the features in Emmy-nominated filmmaker, Keith Beauchamp’s documentary called The Injustice Files: Hood of Suspicion, which appeared on the Investigation Discovery (ID) Network. Beauchamp stated that after hearing about the Robbie Tolan case, he was motivated to tell his story and was baffled at how a young Black man from a prominent family can be wrongly profiled because of his race and then brought to the brink of death by the careless act of someone who has been trained to protect citizens, not harm them.
Since the incident, Tolan has become a civil rights advocate for people who have been oppressed by law enforcement and the judicial system and refuses to allow the incident to slow him down or keep him quiet.
“The previous decision by the courts did not waiver our faith in justice running its course,” said Tolan. ”I think this reaffirms that there are still gaps and work that needs to be done in our judicial system. Sgt. Cotton got acquitted and was able to go back to his normal life and career, while I had aspirations of being a professional baseball player like my father and that dream was stunted because I have a bullet lodged in my liver. How fair is that?”
This article originally published in the May 19, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.