A Texas Supreme Court ruling handed down Friday will allow the family of a Baytown man killed by a university police officer in San Antonio to proceed with a lawsuit against the officer’s employer, the University of the Incarnate Word.
Eight of the court’s justices joined the opinion. Chief Justice Nathan Hecht filed a dissenting opinion.
The case began in December 2013 when Baytown native and UIW student Cameron Redus, 23, was returning to his home at an off-campus apartment. A university police officer, reportedly suspecting he was intoxicated, tried to stop his car on a San Antonio street near the campus.
Redus, near his apartment complex, pulled into his parking lot. He and the officer got into a heated exchange that ended with the officer fatally shooting him.
The Bexar County District Attorney declined to pursue charges against the officer and Redus’s parents, Mickey and Valerie Redus, filed a suit against the police officer and the university as his employer.
While University of the Incarnate Word refused to release records related to the incident, claiming to be a private institution not subject to the Texas Open Records Act, it separately claimed to be immune from a lawsuit on the basis that its police department was acting as an arm of the state and enjoyed sovereign immunity against lawsuits.
The ruling Friday by the Supreme Court found that the university is not an arm of the state and is not protected by sovereign immunity.
Texas gives both public and private universities in the state the option of creating police departments able to enforce both state and local laws. The legislation allowing private universities to create police department grants private university police officers “all the powers, privileges, and immunities of peace officers.”
The court ruled that while the legislation grants private university peace officers the same immunity that applies to other police officers, that immunity does not extend to the
university’s police department or administration.
According to a footnote in the ruling, “Official immunity [for peace officers] serves the critical purpose of protecting police officers for split-second decisions made in the line of duty so that officers do not ‘flinch from acting because of fear of liability.’”
Sovereign immunity, on the other hand, is the principle that the government cannot be sued without its own consent. The reasons for that is that a judgement against the government would divert taxpayer dollars from their legally determined use and that citizens can address grievances against the government through political, rather than judicial, action.
“Political accountability is a vital counterweight to sovereign immunity’s inequity. Absent a legislative directive, sovereign immunity does not exist as a judicial assist for private actors to accomplish the common good,” the ruling said.
The ruling allows the lawsuit to move forward.
Mickey and Valerie Redus said through a family spokesman, “We are gratified by the decisive 8-1 ruling by the Texas Supreme Court and appreciate their thoroughness in reaching this decision. We are anxious to move forward with the case. Over the past six years our goal has remained steadfast: to obtain answers, find closure and to win justice for Cameron.”