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A St. Louis cop's 'reckless' detective work put innocent men in jail. He can’t be sued

A collage of three photos, showing attorneys Brenda Talent, Eric Banks,  and Sarah Swatosh.
File photos
From left to right: attorneys Brenda Talent, Eric Banks and Sarah Swatosh

Even though a St. Louis police detective omitted key details from a warrant application, while also leading what the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals called a “reckless investigation,” he can’t be sued by the two innocent men who spent more than a year behind bars because of his actions.

Why? Because, as the court ruled earlier this month, Beary Bowles’ shoddy investigation meant he failed to learn key information about his case: that a man who'd been shot, a St. Louis fire captain, had identified a Black suspect in a 2017 shooting. The fire captain relayed the same detail to responding officers and to an officer at the hospital. The two men Bowles charged in the crime, brothers James Hartman and Ryan Hartman, are white.

The fact that Bowles’ didn’t know this crucial detail, or seek it out before filing for warrants, may suggest that he is bad at his job — but, legally, it means his mistake was one of ignorance. The appeals court concluded that Bowles is protected by a legal principle called qualified immunity, and so the Hartman brothers can’t sue him.

Speaking on St. Louis on the Air’s Legal Roundtable on Wednesday, attorney Eric Banks said the case is another example of the complexities of qualified immunity, which shields public employees from civil liability over mistakes they may commit on the job.

“I'm appalled by the decision,” said Banks, a former state prosecutor and city counselor for the City of St. Louis. “I just don't find any method to the madness. It's a travesty as far as I'm concerned.”

The court’s decision on Bowles’ conduct wasn’t unanimous. In a dissent, Judge Bobby Shepherd faulted the detective for conducting a “less-than-basic investigation” in which he failed to talk to the officers at the scene or review their reports. Had he read them, he would have been able to learn the description of the shooter.

The appeals court’s decision raises questions about similar cases involving bungled investigations. On Wednesday, attorney Sarah Swatosh suggested the decision “really encourages officers [and] government officials to be willfully blind to the facts.”

Equally troubling for Swatosh is the court’s finding that the detective’s “reckless violation” of his job duties didn’t meet the standard for a violation of constitutional rights.

However, it’s not just police officers who enjoy broad protections under qualified immunity — even for actions that would raise alarm in the private sector. In a separate July ruling, the 8th Circuit concluded that qualified immunity prevents two parents from suing a social worker who filed a neglect complaint against them.

The case’s circumstances are complex, but the Legal Roundtable was in agreement that those circumstances fit with allegations of retaliation on the part of a social worker named Spring Cook. The case began when the couple’s 15-year-old son was sexually abused by a sheriff’s deputy, but when the parents sought a settlement from the county, Cook filed a complaint of neglect against the parents. Cook then refused requests to reassign the case to an investigator from another county and conducted it herself.

Here, the court found that Cook’s actions were protected by qualified immunity.

“She should have removed herself,” Brenda Talent, attorney and CEO of the Show Me-Institute, said Wednesday. “Her conduct tainted this entire investigation, and it did appear she was vindictive. It comes across that she was going after them. … If you're really concerned about the welfare of the child, [wouldn’t you want] for that investigation to be free of any potential conflict of interest?”

There’s a third recent ruling from the 8th Circuit involving qualified immunity. The case, covered previously by St. Louis on the Air, concerned the death of a man who was pinned and left handcuffed on a jail floor by St. Louis police officers. In June, however, the court concluded that the officers are protected from a lawsuit alleging wrongful death.

Talent said the three cases show just how far the legal principle of qualified immunity can stretch.

“The scope of government's ability to screw over its citizens is immense,” she noted. “But there's a part where you step back and you say, ‘Where's the common sense involved in this?’”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."