Texas Supreme Court justices rarely let either attorney complete a sentence as they raised questions during the argument this week over whether the University of the Incarnate Word has immunity from a lawsuit filed by a Baytown family whose son was killed by a university police officer following a traffic stop in 2013.
Cameron Redus, 23, was fatally shot by University of the Incarnate Word officer Christopher Carter after Carter stopped him for alleged erratic driving near the San Antonio university. The late-night stop was off campus near the apartment where Redus lived.
Redus’ parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit against UIW in 2014, but university lawyers have since argued the institution should be granted immunity because its police officers are licensed and commissioned by the state. Attorneys for the Redus family contend that as a private university, UIW does not receive public funds, and therefore would not qualify as a governmental entity.
A Bexar County grand jury declined to indict the officer. The suit against the officer as an individual was dismissed, since police officers acting in the line of duty are largely shielded from lawsuits.
University of the Incarnate Word tried to get the lawsuit against it dismissed, since police departments are also immune from most lawsuits. However, a state appeals court rejected that argument on the grounds that University of the Incarnate Word is not a governmental entity. This hearing was on the university’s appeal of that ruling.
The government is shielded from most lawsuits under the legal doctrine of sovereign immunity, which holds that the government cannot be sued without its own consent.
University of the Incarnate Word was represented before the court by Amy Warr of the law firm Alexander Dubose & Jefferson.
She argued that when the legislature gave private universities the authority to create police departments and to commission officers that those departments are equal to other police agencies in the state, including immunity.
Law enforcement is “the essential governmental sovereign function that is at issue here,” she said. “We are the government. We are, after all, the police,” she said.
Justice Debra Lehrman asked at that point what Warr considered the legal test for a private entity being considered immune. “Certainly the private university is not a governmental unit,” she said.
Justice Jimmy Blalock pointed out that a citizen of a city who is dissatisfied with the police department have political recourse. “They can go to the city council. They can go to the mayor and they can try to get changes in the management. Then they can vote those people out of office if those people out if those people don’t respond the way they would like them to respond in regard to the police department.”
Since the public can’t vote out the board of a private university, what recourse is available to citizens if they can’t sue, he asked.
Warr said they could go to the legislature and seek to change the law.
Brent Perry, of the Houston law firm Burford Perry, represented the Redus family.
He also raised the question of accountability “I don’t see any way to hold the University of Incarnate Word accountable other than complaining to its board of trustees, which is a private entity and has no public accountability.”
“There are no elected officials. There are no taxpayer funds at issue that can be reallocated in order to punish them. There’s no one that a public official can fire,” he said.
Speaking after the hearing, Perry said he could not predict how the court might rule, but “We’re hoping for the opportunity to look to discover exactly what happened and get justice for the Redus family.”
He said the court has until the end of its term to issue a ruling, but that he expected there would be a ruling in about May.