On day eight of the federal trial for the wrongful death of Andrew Joseph III, the defense team for Hillsborough Sheriff's Office rested its case, but made one last attempt at qualified immunity.
When the defense rested this afternoon, the jury left the courtroom. The defense team then said that Corporal Mark Clark should be let off the hook for taking Joseph into custody and ejecting him from the Florida State Fair on Feb. 7 2014, despite no evidence of him committing a crime. That night, Joseph, just 14 years old, died on Interstate-4 while trying to find his ride home.
HCSO defense argued that qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that protects cops from prosecution, should apply to Clark.
But the court had already decided before the trial that Clark was not protected under qualified immunity. Clark is one of the defendants, along with Sheriff Chad Chronister. The Joseph family is asking for $30 million in damages.Qualified immunity was denied for Clark because it's supposed to protect officers from lawsuits alleging that they violated a plaintiff's rights, but allows lawsuits where officials violated a “clearly established” statutory or constitutional right.
Attorneys for the Joseph family argued that Clark violated state laws about taking a child into custody, along with Joseph’s constitutional Fourth Amendment rights, which protect against unreasonable seizures and searches by law enforcement.
However, HCSO defense lawyer Marie Borland told the court today that it hasn’t been proven Clark detained Joseph that night, even though the defense had agreed before the trial that Clark had detained the child.
“Corporal Clark should be out on qualified immunity at this point because they [the plaintiff] have not even identified who seized Joseph on the midway,” Borland told Judge Mary Scriven.
Scriven brought up how in the pre-trial stipulation, or legal agreement, the defense had confirmed that Clark took Joseph into custody.
“It was so stipulated by the defense,” she said. “Joseph was detained by Corporal Clark.”
Throughout the trial, the defense tried to change its story, saying that it isn’t known if Clark was the initial officer to take Joseph into custody. Clark has claimed that he “can’t recall” if he did so or not. This led Scriven to tell the defense team "you can’t manufacture facts” last week during the trial.
The defense also argued that certain portions of state law shouldn’t apply to the way Clark and other HCSO officers treated Joseph after he was taken into custody. Sections of Florida Statute 985 define rules for what law enforcement is required to do after detaining a minor.
The plaintiffs argued that HCSO violated multiple sections of the law, including not making an attempt to contact Joseph’s parents after he was taken into custody and ejected from the fair. Another section of the statute also requires the minor to be released to either their parent or a responsible adult.
HCSO did not attempt to do either of these things the night that Joseph died. And it was alleged that an officer told Joseph and his 12-year-old friend that they had to cross I-4 to get back to their ride home.
Today the judge ruled that HCSO was in fact responsible for following state law. “His parents were required to be notified,” Scriven said.
In making a case that 985 does not apply to this case, Borland cited the case of “Doerr vs. the State of Florida.” She argued that the case backed up the defense’s claims that the state statute should not apply to Clark.
But Scriven discovered that the decision in that case was found to be bad case law. She asked Borland if the defense team knew that. “We did not see that the case was not good law,” Borland said.
Before resting its case today, the defense dropped two witnesses last minute.
An expert witness that did take the stand for the defense argued that Clark was in the right—and was scrutinized about his knowledge of the application of state law during cross examination.
Since the trial started last week, one of the commanding officers involved the night Joseph died said that individual deputies should be able to interpret state laws at their own discretion. But a law enforcement expert told the court that HCSO violated the Constitution and State Law by taking the children into custody with no evidence of a crime and failing to contact their parents.
Major Frank Losat, who is representing Chronister in the case, was also accused of wrongly ordering a witness for the defense team to be arrested by HCSO. The witness had to be dismissed from the trial.
Closing arguments in the federal lawsuit over the wrongful death of Andrew Joseph III are scheduled for tomorrow, Thursday, Sept. 22.