A federal appeals court has reinstated a Black teenager’s lawsuit in which he alleged that Kansas City police misidentified him as an armed suspect and unlawfully detained him for three weeks before charges against him were dropped.
On Oct. 28, a split three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower-court ruling granting summary judgment to two Kansas City Police Department officers, Peter Neukirch and Jonathan Munyan.
Tyree Bell sued the officers, Sgt. Luis Ortiz, Det. John Mattivi, former police chief Darryl Forte and members of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners in 2017 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri. The appeals court upheld summary judgment in favor of the other defendants in the case.
The events that gave rise to the suit took place on June 8, 2016, according to the principal opinion, written by Chief Judge Lavenski R. Smith.
Just before 4:08 p.m., police received a 911 call that a group of Black teen boys was outside a house on Marsh Avenue with a group of teen girls, playing with guns.
Neukirch and Munyan responded to the call. When they arrived, they encountered three Black male teenagers walking along the side of the street. As the officers got out of their vehicle, one of the three began to run and Munyan chased him while ordering him to drop his gun.
The teen tossed a gun and continued to run, outpacing Munyan. In a transmission on his police radio, Munyan described the suspect as a Black male teenager, about 5 feet, 10 inches tall, and with a skinny build and shoulder-length dreadlocks. Munyan also said the teen was wearing blue shorts and a white T-shirt.
About seven minutes later and 1 mile away from the officers, a third officer saw Bell, who was then 15, walking and talking on his cell phone. Believing Bell matched the description provided by Munyan, the officer detained Bell.
Munyan ultimately confirmed Bell was the suspect. Based on information he and Neukirch relayed, either Ortiz or Mattivi approved placing Bell on a 24-hour hold at the Juvenile Justice Center. Two days later, a juvenile court judge determined there was probable cause to hold Bell for unlawfully carrying a gun and fleeing from officers.
In a second hearing on June 22, a judge ordered Bell’s continued detention until an August trial. On June 29, after Bell had been detained for three weeks, Mattivi watched the patrol car dash camera video for the first time and concluded that Bell was not the suspect who possessed the gun. A prosecutor then dropped the charges against Bell.
Bell’s civil rights suit followed. The case was thrown out in 2019 when U.S. District Judge Greg Kays granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment.
Bell appealed, arguing that Kays erred in granting qualified immunity to the officers because they arrested and detained him without probable cause, and no reasonable officer could have believed that probable cause existed.
Bell also argued that “several obvious exculpatory factors” nullified probable cause in his case, Smith said.
The majority of the panel agreed, concluding “the totality of circumstances was insufficient to warrant a prudent officer in believing that Bell was the suspect who possessed the gun and fled the original scene.”
While the suspect and Bell were both young Black men wearing white T-shirts, “their full descriptions diverge at that point,” Smith said.
Bell was several inches taller than the suspect, did not show any signs of running even though he was apprehended seven minutes after the chase and was wearing clothing that did not match the suspect’s description, the judge noted.
“Where a seized person’s characteristics differ this substantially from what reasonably would be expected from the suspect, an officer does not have probable cause for an arrest,” Smith said.
Smith also said that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity because no reasonable officer in Munyan or Neukirch’s position could have believed that probable cause existed to arrest Bell “based on the plainly exculpatory evidence available to them.”
Colloton agreed with Smith in a concurring opinion. Judge David R. Stras dissented, saying he would affirm the lower court’s ruling.
“This case is hardly the model of good police work, but the question for us is whether Munyan and his partner were on ‘notice’ that their conduct violated ‘clearly established law,’” Stras said. “If they were not, they are entitled to qualified immunity regardless of whether they violated Bell’s rights. Even assuming a violation occurred, I remain unconvinced that the underlying constitutional question was ‘beyond debate.’”
Kansas City attorney Arthur Benson represented Bell. In a statement, he said that Black lives matter and “three weeks of an innocent child’s life stolen and jailed matter.”
“When the Kansas City Police Department does not train its mostly white officers that all Blacks do not look alike, it matters,” he said. “When the department does not train its officers that cross-race identifications are often misidentifications resulting in innocent people of color being wrongfully arrested, it matters. Maybe what Mr. Bell suffered can result in long-needed police officer training, and then innocence can matter.”
A spokesman for the Missouri Attorney General’s Office declined to comment.
The case is Bell v. Neukirch et al., 19-1713.