Disability and Policing: Leroy Duffie (double amputee, black) and the #CultOfCompliance

A double amputee (legs) not matching the description of a robbery suspect was told by police to get out of the car with his hands up. 8th Circuit Court has reversed a district court granting “qualified immunity” to the police in question.
I’m going to be referring to this case a lot as it embodies the dangers of the compliance-based policing to disabled civilians. Key summary:
  • The officer was looking for a young black man with braided hair. A van was involved.
  • The driver, Leroy Duffie, was in his 50s and bald. The officer couldn’t see well though so decided he had probable cause to stop, “Based on the match of the driver’s race and gender and the similarity of the van description.”
  • The officer (and backup) were concerned the civilian had a firearm, so approached the van with their own weapons drawn and demanded the driver exit immediately.

The officers exited their vehicles with their sidearms drawn and remained shielded behind their opened doors. Officer Kaiser ordered the driver “to turn off the vehicle, place his hands in the air, open the door, and slowly step out of vehicle.” The driver did not immediately comply. The officers began cautiously approaching the vehicle with their sidearms drawn toward the van, while continuing to shout commands for the driver to exit the vehicle. The driver explained his apparent noncompliance. He attempted to inform the officers that he was physically unable to exit his vehicle with his hands in the air. The officers responded by ordering him to put his head back in the vehicle and get out with his hands in the air. Eventually, the driver opened his door and turned his body to exit the vehicle but immediately fell face-first to the pavement.

I feel for Duffie, here, who must have been terrified he was about to be killed for noncompliance, even though he couldn’t comply.

  • So far, it’s problematic, but hard to legally fault the officers. They mis-ID’d the van, they forced the driver to humiliate himself and fall to the ground out of the vehicle or risk being shot. But at this point they discover instead of an abled teen with braids, it’s a bald man in his 50s with two prosthetic legs. So what do they do? Handcuff him, search him, search the van, find no one else in the fan, but leave him face down on the pavement for five to ten minutes.

The driver, later identified as Duffie, is a double amputee with two prosthetic legs. He could not safely exit the vehicle in the manner that the officers commanded. The fall caused one of Duffie’s prostheses to become detached. Duffie’s prosthetic legs were ill-fitting due to weight loss from cancer treatments. Duffie remained on the ground for the remainder of the traffic stop. After finding no one else in the van, the officers handcuffed Duffie, still face down on the pavement, searched him for a weapon, and then removed the handcuffs after five to ten minutes at Duffie’s request. The officers told Duffie that they stopped him because his vehicle matched the description of the van from the incident at the convenience store. By this point, the officers knew that Duffie did not match the description of the young man at the convenience store. Duffie was not a young man in a tank top with braids; at the time, he was a bald, 58 year-old double-amputee.

It’s one thing for police to not expect the presence of disability – that’s normal, if problematic. It’s another thing for continuing to treat Duffie as a potential suspect even though there’s no reasonable evidence that he was involved. The courts, as I read the decision, agreed.

 Darkness limited Officer Kaiser’s vision; nonetheless, an
objectively reasonable police officer would not mistake a 58-year-old bald man for a
young adult with hair. Officers may not turn a blind eye to facts that undermine
reasonable suspicion. 

Yes, the irony of the disability metaphor is not lost on me.

You can find the decision here.

Update: Leroy Moore, a major activist on policing and disability, sent me this link of local coverage, including a picture of Duffie.

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