U.S. Supreme Court orders review of 2008 Robbie Tolan shooting (TX)

The U.S. Supreme Court has ordered the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider the case involving the shooting of Robert (Robbie) Tolan, son of former major league baseball player Bobby Tolan, by a Bellaire police officer.

The shooting

On New Year’s Eve 2008, Tolan, then 23, was unarmed when shot outside his parents’ Houston-area home as police mistakenly believed he was in possession of a stolen car. It was later determined an officer had typed in the wrong license plate when checking the ownership of Tolan’s vehicle.

Sgt. Jeffrey Cotton fired three times, but only hit Tolan once. At the trial, Tolan testified that, at the time of his shooting, he was on one knee protesting Cotton pushing his mother. Tolan was shot in the presence of his parents as they tried to attest to the family’s ownership of the car.

The bullet remains lodged in Tolan’s liver after surgeons were unable to remove it.

Recourse unsuccessful

A 2010 trial ended with a jury acquitting Cotton of criminal charges while the lodged bullet ended Tolan’s once-promising prospects of his own professional baseball career.

The Tolan family also filed a civil lawsuit against Cotton and and city officials claiming the use excessive force with Tolan’s shooting. Racial profiling, false arrests and racial harassment was also alleged. The Tolan family is black, Cotton is white.

A Houston federal district court judge sided with Cotton and the city’s arguments that government officials are immune from civil lawsuits unless their conduct is found in violation of constitutional rights. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later affirmed that decision, but has now been instructed to re-open the case.

The new ruling

Per the Supreme Court,  the 5th Circuit “failed properly to acknowledge key evidence offered by the (Tolans).” The ruling went on to say the 5th Circuit’s  judgment was vacated “so that the court can determine whether, when Tolan’s evidence is properly credited and factual inferences are reasonably drawn in his favor, Cotton’s actions violated clearly established law.”

“We’re pleased the Supreme Court agreed that the case should go forward,” said attorney Martin Siegel, who represented Tolan in his appeal to the high court, according to TheBoxHouston.com. “A jury should decide whether Robbie’s civil rights were violated. 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.”

Meanwhile, William Helfand, attorney for the Cotton and the city, reportedly noted how the high court isn’t refuting the district judge’s ruling that no constitutional violation occurred, it’s just “instead focused on a procedural concern regarding the 5th Circuit’s analysis of the case.”

“I imagine that on review, I don’t expect any change in the (summary judgment) decision,” he told KTRK-TV.

Benjamin Crump, the attorney who represented the family of Trayvon Martin, has also now been hired to represent Tolan.

Lou Ann Anderson is an information activist and the editor of Watchdog Wire – Texas. As also a contributor at Raging Elephants Radio and News Radio 1400 KTEM, she writes and speaks on a variety of public policy topics. Lou Ann is the creator and online producer at Estate of Denial®, a website that addresses probate abuse via wills, trusts, guardianships and powers of attorney as well as other taxpayer advocacy issues.

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