Off-Duty and On Trial: Unpacking Two Federal Lawsuits Against Louisiana Police
Written by: Sam Orlando
NEW ORLEANS, LA - Two federal lawsuits out of Louisiana, both alleging misconduct and racially discriminatory behavior by off-duty police officers, are set to be decided by a judge in New Orleans. The cases are bringing renewed scrutiny to the conduct of police officers when not in official duty and are raising questions about accountability and the doctrine of qualified immunity.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Louisiana, representing the plaintiffs in both cases, appeared in federal court Wednesday. In the first case, they represent Bilal Hankins, who was 18 at the time of the incident in June 2020. Hankins alleges that he was racially profiled during a traffic stop and subjected to excessive force by off-duty officers in his Uptown neighborhood. Hankins had reportedly sought help from the officers to find a lost dog.
According to ACLU of Louisiana legal director Nora Ahmed, the officers have sought to dismiss the lawsuit, invoking the principle of qualified immunity, which shields government officials from being held personally liable for actions performed within their official capacity.
During the hearing, the judge queried both parties about the reasonableness of the stop, the alleged use of excessive force, and the supervisory responsibility, given that the officers were off-duty and employed by the Hurstville Security and Neighborhood Improvement District at the time.
The lawsuit aims to hold the officers, their Hurstville supervisor, and their employers, the Orleans Levee District Police Department and the Housing Authority of New Orleans, accountable. "We are now awaiting a decision on that motion for summary judgment, which ultimately can decide whether our client gets to present his case before a jury or whether the case is closed," Ahmed said.
The second lawsuit, also presented by the ACLU, involves Frances Tapps, who alleges harassment by an off-duty Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s deputy at her Kenner home in January 2021. Tapps' lawsuit contends that the deputy tried to evict her without legal authorization at the behest of her landlord, causing her to go into premature labor.
Ahmed explained the aim of the second lawsuit: "Today was about whether the landlord who asked the police officer to show up and collect the keys from our client, Ms. Tapps, is responsible for the false imprisonment that then ended up taking place in this case and, of course, the injury that resulted there from which is pre-term labor.”
This case also accuses Jefferson Parish Sheriff Joe Lopinto of negligent hiring, retention, and supervision. The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office declined to comment on the pending litigation.
As the judge deliberates on these cases, both lawsuits are bringing the spotlight back onto police conduct, even when officers are off-duty, and the systems of accountability and protection in place.