This case involved an encounter between a taxicab driver named Junior Prosper and a Miami Dade police officer that resulted in Prosper’s death. Prosper’s widow sued the officer under 42 U.S.C. §1983 in federal court in Miami, Florida, claiming constitutional violation for the officer’s actions. The federal trial judge ruled that the officer was entitled to the protection of qualified immunity, which gives liability protection to police officers. This is an appeal from the federal trial judge’s decision to dismiss the case.
The events began when Prosper’s taxi drifted off the road and collided with a pole near the ramp to I-95, apparently because he lost consciousness while driving. A witness called 911 and reported the driver had passed out. A few minutes later Prosper got out of the taxi and was seen running up the on-ram toward I-95. Another witness thought Prosper was drunk and had stolen the taxi. The Miami Dade officer arrived on the scene in response to the call and learned from the witnesses what they had seen. In his police cruiser, the officer approached Prosper on the I-95 ramp and ordered him to stop, but Prosper continued walking up the ramp. What happened next was disputed except for the fact that the officer tased Prosper; Prosper bit down on the officer’s left index finger; and the officer shot Prosper 3 times in the chest. According to the officer, after Prosper bit down his finger the officer then tased Prosper, but Prosper would not release his bite. When the officer was unable to pry Prosper’s jaw open with his free hand, he drew his firearm and shot Prosper once in the chest. Prosper continued biting while twisting his head from side to side, and the officer shot him a second time. Prosper still did not release, and he fired a third shot killing Prosper.
Prosper’s version was derived from a blurry surveillance video that depicted little more than two persons engaged in a two-minute long struggle in the dark beside a busy highway. This is how the Plaintiff explained what happened. Prosper and the officer lost their balance and fell down the embankment. The officer got on his feet and then tased Prosper three time as Prosper lay in the bushes. Supposedly the officer shot him or tased him, and as Prosper continued to flee, the officer tackled him and began beating him. Prosper’s finger became lodged in the officer’s mouth, and the officer shot Prosper three times.
The appellate court agreed with the district court’s decision to dismiss this federal civil rights claim on the grounds of qualified immunity. The appeals court found that the officer’s actions were reasonable for an officer on the scene at the time of the events. While the court is required to adopt the account most favorable to the Plaintiff, in this case the Plaintiff’s version must be sufficiently supported by the record that a reasonable jury could find to be true. Here Prosper’s interpretation of the Biscayne Air Video amounted to mere speculation and the video fails to create issues of fact as the Plaintiff claims. The appellate court quoted the trial court’s comment that the video does not contradict the officer’s statements.” Without evidence to contradict the officer’s version, it was unrebutted and the court found that the officer’s actions were reasonable under the circumstances.