The Case of Robert Tolan v. Jeffrey Wayne Cotton
Subtitled: How a police officer making a typographical error resulted in a man having a bullet shot through his lung.
Before the civil case could proceed to trial, it went to the Supreme Court of the United States. The Supreme Court decided that it should go to trial. I thought that we would have a trial to follow this week, but trial in this case is not going to happen.
The SCOTUS decision gives us the details.
In Bellaire, Texas, on December 31, 2008, around 2 a.m., Robert Tolan and his cousin, Anthony Cooper, were in a black Nissan sport utility vehicle. Police officer John Edwards entered the license plate number into a computer in his squad car, but he typed a “5” instead of a “6”. That mistake returned a match for a stolen vehicle of the same color and make of the Tolan vehicle. When that happens, the patrol car’s computer sends an automatic message to other police units.
The house where Robert and his cousin parked was where Robert lives with his parents. They were on the front porch when officer Edwards got out of his cruiser, drew his weapon, and ordered Robert and Anthony to get on the ground. Edwards accused them of having a stolen car. Robert told Edwards it was his car, and he complied with Edwards’ demand to lie face-down.
Hearing the commotion, Robert’s parents came out of the front door in their pajamas. Robert’s father encouraged the two young men to stay face down and say nothing. Officer Edwards told Robert’s parents that Robert and Anthony had stolen the vehicle. Robert’s dad told officer Edwards that Robert is his son, Anthony is his nephew, and that the vehicle belonged to the family.
Edwards radioed for help, and Sergeant Jeffrey Cotton arrived and drew his firearm. Edwards told Cotton that Robert and Anthony had stolen the vehicle. Robert’s parents reiterated what they told Edwards. Cotton ordered Robert’s mom to stand against the garage door. In response, she stated “Are you kidding me? We’ve lived here for 15 years. We’ve never had anything like this to happen before.”
What happened next is under dispute. Cotton was indicted in Harris County, Texas for aggravated assault by a public servant, but he was acquitted. During that criminal trial, Robert’s mom testified that Cotton grabbed her arm and slammed her against the garage door so forcefully that she fell to the ground. Photographic evidence supported that she had bruises on her arms and back for days.
Cotton testified at his deposition that he did not know if he left bruises but did not believe that he bruised her. Robert testified that when he saw Cotton abusively handling his mom, that he rose to his knees. Edwards and Cotton however, testified that Robert rose to his feet.
All of the parties agree that Cotton fired three shots at Robert. His mom testified that the shots came with no verbal warning. One of the bullets entered Robert’s chest, collapsing his right lung and piercing his liver. Robert survived, but the injury disrupted his budding professional baseball career. In case you don’t recognize Robert’s last name, his dad is World Champion major league baseball player Bob Tolan.
In May 2009, Anthony, Robert, and Robert’s parents filed suit alleging that Cotton used excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The Court of the Appeals for the Fifth Circuit decided that if even if Cotton’s conduct violated their Fourth Amendment rights, that Cotton was entitled to qualified immunity.
The SCOTUS decision addresses requirements to support qualified immunity. They reversed the decision of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. One of the Tolans’ attorneys is Benjamin Crump, who represented Trayvon Martin’s parents.
A few days ago, ABC news reported that Cotton and the City of Bellaire, Texas settled with Robert for $110,000. It was a small amount, but after more than 6 years, the Tolans say they are ready to move on. The outcome of trial was not certain. For one thing, in spite of the Supreme Court’s decision in the case, presiding Judge Harmon said that she was considering dismissing the case a second time.
The Houston Press has more about recent developments in the trial court just before the settlement was reached. It also addresses the precedent set by SCOTUS regarding qualified immunity.
The following video is from 2013. Robert is moving on and in that process, helping others.