Policing and the New DA


Chris Thomas, Staff Writer

In the waning hours of the night, Shane Howse found himself handcuffed and pinned to the floor outside his own home. He would spend the following days in jail on the basis of assault and obstruction charges. In a matter of hours, Howse had gone from his front porch to a jail cell. 


On the night of the arrest, several Cleveland police officers noticed Howse on the front porch. After questioning him repeatedly, they decided to arrest him and in order to carry out this arrest they tackled him to the ground. As always, there are multiple sides to this unfortunate series of events.


According to Justia, an organization specializing in legal information retrieval, Howse claimed that he was stopped by officers Hoddous and Middaugh who emerged from an unmarked vehicle. Howse said that he was not aware that they were police officers at the time. Then, without warning, he was thrown down by the officers. Howse said it was only then that he resisted arrest by “stiffening” his body.


The officers told a different story. They described Howse as “lingering suspiciously” outside of what appeared to be an abandoned house and stated that was their reason for approaching him. Officer Middaugh, who was first to engage with Howse, says that Howse was in a fighting stance with clenched fists. According to the officer’s explanation, Howse struck first, and then and only then did they use physical force to affect their arrest. 


Eventually, the charges were dropped and Howse took an opportunity to raise a countersuit. His lawyers alleged that the officers had violated Howse’s fourth amendment rights. In harmony with the dismissal of charges, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the officer’s actions were unlawful. However, they did not rule in favor of Howse.


Circuit Judge Amul Thapar delivered the opinion of the court. They found that it is not clearly established that officers cannot tackle a non-compliant suspect and use additional force if the suspect resists. Judge Thapar writes that “‘Clearly established’ means that the law is so clear at the time of the incident that every reasonable officer would understand the unlawfulness of his conduct.” Qualified immunity is the legal doctrine that protects officers from certain types of civil litigation when their alleged wrongdoing has not previously been ‘clearly established’. It is designed to prevent paralysis by analysis, in other words, officers overthinking in situations where split-second decisions are required. 


The Supreme Court of the United States did not hear the case so it seems that Howse and his lawyers have reached the end of the road. Nonetheless, Qualified immunity has continued to be a controversial issue as officer involved shootings (OIS), and police interactions in general, dominated the 2020 summer news cycle. Some of these incidents took place right here in Fulton County,  Georgia. During the early-June protests the Atlanta Police Department fired two officers who used stun guns in a display of excessive force. More notably, a man was fatally shot in the back after stealing an officer’s taser. The man was Rayshard Brooks, 27-year-old father of three . He was shot by, now former, Officer Garret Rolfe, who had been with the Atlanta Police Department for seven years.


Qualified immunity is used across the country, but Georgia is one of the states in which the language of the doctrine slightly varies from other states. The legal nuance is above my head and Officer Rolfe is currently facing criminal charges, not a civil suit. Therefore, I won’t bore you with the details.


It has been several months since the shooting of Rayshard Brooks and during that time there were some notable elections. As Georgia flipped blue in the general election and senate runoff, Fanni Willis quietly replaced Paul Howard as the Fulton District Attorney.


The up and coming Lawyer campaigned on, among other things, indictment diversion programs and defeated the incumbent by more than 30,000 votes. Nevertheless, there are still lingering effects from the previous DA. Willis claims that Howard may have violated state bar rules when he used video evidence from these cases on the campaign trail. She believes any wrongdoing presents a conflict of interest. Willis has twice attempted, and twice failed, to recuse herself from both of these cases. She believes it is her duty to prosecute the cases, but does not believe that she is the best option to do so, Willis told 11 Alive WXIA. Regardless of what she believes, Willis may have to prosecute these cases if a third recusal attempt, coming from Rolfe’s attorney, is blocked. 


Being a DA doesn’t often put officials under the spotlight, but Willis’ reluctance has not gone unnoticed. Willis has apologized to the families involved in the cases for her lack of communication and transparency. In February, several agitated Fulton county residents decided they were going to let Willis know how they felt. The caravan of cars drove to her neighborhood to have their voices heard. It turns out they were in the wrong neighborhood, but the frustration is ever apparent. This frustration has grown as Willis has been more than willing to pursue investigations against former President Trump for election interference.


In fairness to Willis, the former president and his alleged misconduct fall under her jurisdiction. However, interest in the former president is declining and cries for justice, or any course of action, are growing. 


Willis is firmly committed to the Investigation of Former President Trump, having already hired several experts to help the investigation. At the same time she has given press conferences with the families involved in an attempt to push for recusal, justice and closure. The first time DA might prove to be in over her head as she tries to have the best of both worlds.