A White Ohio police officer has been ordered to pay $4.4 million in compensatory damages to the family of 23-year-old Luke Stewart, who is Black, and who was killed while sleeping in his car. Officer Matthew Rhodes shot the unarmed man at least four times after climbing into Stewart’s vehicle parked on a suburban Cleveland street.
In 2018, the victim’s mother Mary Stewart filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Rhodes and his partner, Officer Louis Catalani, who was also at the scene. She contends that the officers violated Stewart’s constitutional and state-law rights and that those violations caused Stewart’s death.
According to the complaint:
“At around 6:50 a.m. on Monday, March 13, 2017, a Euclid resident called the Euclid Police Department. She told the police that there was a ‘creepy looking car . . . parked outside’ her house on South Lake Shore. The resident described the car as a ‘black Honda’ with windows that were so dark that she could not tell whether the car was occupied. She told the police that the car had been sitting outside with its parking lights on for around twenty minutes.”
The police apparently believed the man was under the influence and tried to get him to come out of the car, but Stewart allegedly tried to drive away. Rhodes then got into the car, and the two engaged in a scuffle.
Rhodes used a Taser on Stewart, hit him, and finally fired four fatal shots. Stewart was unarmed, The Guardian reported.
“Rhodes shot Stewart once in the chest, and Stewart tried to punch him, according to filings. Rhodes then shot Stewart four more times, including in the neck, killing him,” according to Corey Schaeffer at Cleveland.com.
“The officers, with bright lights shining on Stewart’s car, tapped on the window to wake him up. Stewart awoke and tried to turn on the ignition. Rhodes opened the passenger door and jumped into the passenger seat as Stewart drove away.”
“Rhodes and Stewart struggled over the gear shift. Rhodes said Stewart asked, ‘what are you doing in my car’ as he drove. Rhodes pulled out his Taser and shocked Stewart five times, then punched him in the head with the Taser twice before he pulled out his gun, according to court records. Stewart did not strike back,” Cleveland.com reported.
Stewart’s shooting came two years before then-Governor John Kasich (R-OH) signed an amendment to Ohio state law that makes body-worn camera footage subject to public disclosure – contrary to other states that exempt body camera footage from public record. Though there are some exceptions, the 2019 law strikes a balance between public calls for transparency and respecting the privacy of those involved in certain circumstances.
In March, a judge ruled that Stewart’s mother could proceed with her lawsuit – after previously being dismissed by a federal judge citing “qualified immunity.”
Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Shannon Gallagher disagreed, using the U.S Sixth District Court of Appeals’ own reasoning, even though the court upheld the prior dismissal.
“The Sixth Circuit upheld the dismissal. However, the appellate court suggested that Ohio laws surrounding qualified immunity are different than federal statutes, and a lawsuit may proceed there because ‘a reasonable jury could find facts showing Stewart did not pose an immediate danger of serious physical harm and thus the use of deadly force [by officer Rhodes] was unreasonable.’”
The ruling paved the way for Mary Stewart to continue her case. As cases of police brutality and killings are on the rise, the subject of qualified immunity has become a hot-button issue between advocates for police reform and those who believe it’s necessary to recruit and retain law enforcement officers.
Though a grand jury failed to return an indictment, hopefully, this will make officers think twice before resorting to lethal force, if only to preserve their bank accounts.
Read the entire complaint here.
Original reporting by Samira Asma-Sadeque at The Guardian.
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