Jarius Brown first filed suit against two DeSoto Parish sheriff’s deputies in 2021, accusing them of beating him so severely following his arrest in 2019 they broke his nose and eye socket.

But it was a year too late. Brown had missed a legal deadline to sue over alleged law enforcement abuses, and a federal district court judge quickly threw out the case. 

Now, Brown is challenging that law, claiming it has prevented himself and hundreds of others from holding law enforcement accountable.

Last week, a panel of judges for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in New Orleans heard oral arguments in Brown’s case, in which his attorneys argued that the one-year deadline Louisiana imposes on filing federal lawsuits that allege police brutality and civil rights violations is discriminatory and out of step with national standards.

Louisiana is one of three states, including Kentucky and Tennessee, that imposes a one-year limit on such suits. Nearly half of states allow for three years or more, with Maine and North Dakota going as high as six. 

ACLU of Louisiana Legal Director Nora Ahmed, who is representing Brown in the case, said that he, like many victims of excessive force, was too traumatized to file suit immediately. He suffered significant injuries, feared retaliation from his alleged attackers, and was also occupied with fighting the original charges for which he was arrested, she said.

“The problem with the statute of limitations is how many people out there, like Mr. Brown, are being turned away at the door,” Ahmed said.

Of more than 400 cases of alleged police brutality brought to the ACLU of Louisiana for review between July 2020 and December 2021, 30% fell outside of the one-year statute of limitations. Another 15% were within six months of the deadline, Ahmed said, making it impossible to conduct a proper investigation in the time needed to file litigation.

Should the court rule in their favor and expand the statute of limitations, it would represent a “sea change in police accountability,” Ahmed said.

Brown’s inability to seek justice is particularly egregious, given that the U.S. Department of Justice recently indicted one of the accused officers in his case, Javarrea Pouncy, with “federal civil rights violations for willfully using unreasonable force against a detainee, failing to obtain medical care for the detainee and obstructing justice,” according to the DOJ.

The second officer, Demarkes Grant, pleaded guilty in September to obstruction of justice. He admitted that he and his fellow officer beat Brown without justification and then lied about the assault to cover their tracks, according to his plea agreement. He is scheduled to be sentenced early next year.

Attorneys for the officers did not respond to a request for comment

‘J.B. did not look good’

In September 2019, Brown was arrested on a stolen vehicle charge while also in possession of a small bag of marijuana, according to court documents and news reports. He was taken to the Desoto Parish jail where, as part of the booking process, he was strip-searched in a laundry room by Grant and Pouncy, who is referred to as “Supervisor 1,” in Grant’s plea agreement. Brown is referred to as “J.B.” 

During the strip search, Brown followed the officers’ orders without incident until he was instructed to do several squats. In his plea agreement, Grant said that while Brown did “squat multiple times,” he didn’t “fully comply” with their directions. “As a result, the officers moved toward J.B., at which time J.B. nudged Grant and balled one of his fists,” according to the agreement.

In response, the officers punched Brown in the “head and face” dozens of times. At one point, Pouncy held Brown while Grant “positioned himself, pulled his arm back, and threw a punch into J.B.’s stomach,” according to the agreement. Pouncy then “delivered an uppercut to J.B.’s face, causing J.B. to fall to the ground.”

At no point did Brown present a threat, Grant said in his plea agreement, and yet they continued to punch him in the head, which Grant acknowledged to be lethal force. Neither officer called for assistance, attempted to restrain Brown by using their handcuffs, or tried to stop the other from assaulting Brown.

When the attack finally stopped, Grant said Brown was “visibly injured, including that his eye was swelling and he was bleeding from his mouth. Grant thought J.B. did not look good,” according to the plea agreement. Despite the condition of Brown, Grant said they did not seek medical assistance.

Forty minutes later, the warden noticed Brown’s condition and called for an ambulance. Brown was diagnosed with a broken eye socket and nose, among other injuries. Grant later wrote a report in which he minimized their use of force and “omitted the fact that both officers’ use of force had been unjustified and unreasonable, among other falsehoods.” 

“Grant provided a copy of his report to Supervisor 1, allowing Supervisor 1 to copy and promote Grant’s falsehoods,” according to the plea agreement.

It took Brown nearly two years to recover from the brutal assault, both physically and mentally. By the time he felt ready to file a lawsuit, the one-year statute of limitations had expired. He and his attorneys, however, decided to press forward. They filed suit in September 2021, including in it a direct challenge to the one-year deadline. 

Section 1983

Lawsuits such as Brown’s are typically filed under section 1983 of federal law, which was passed in the aftermath of the Civil War as part of the Ku Klux Klan Act. Its purpose was to empower people who claim to have been deprived of their civil rights by those acting “under the color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State of territory.” 

It did not, however, establish a statute of limitations, a point that David Hemken — who is representing the officers — highlighted when arguing on their behalf before the Fifth Circuit.

Hemken told the judges it should be Congress, not the courts, that establishes deadlines on when people need to file suits alleging excessive force and civil rights violations, and it has failed to do so.

“It’s been 200 years that we’ve had a one-year period,” Hemken said. “They’ve had multiple opportunities if they disagreed or thought that Louisiana got it wrong. They could have stepped in and clarified or extended it.”

Section 1983 “was written during the Reconstruction era when we’re under federal occupation,” he said. “And you had a large percentage of former slaves that were actually on the legislature at that point. And they, that legislature, kept it the same one year.”

Brown’s attorneys, meanwhile, have pointed out the many inconsistencies in Louisiana’s approach to limiting the time in which lawsuits can be filed. For example, people seeking damages for crimes of violence have two years to do so in state court, compared to just one for federal suits involving excessive force. In addition, the state once limited claims of child abuse to one year but expanded it to three, so alleged victims have a “chance to recover and still have time to file suit,” according to court documents.

Similar efforts to increase the time given to victims of police brutality have been rejected. In 2016, the state legislature was considering whether to increase the statute of limitations for excessive force claims when former Sen. Danny Martiny, the longtime attorney for the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, objected, stating that “90% of what I do for a living is defend police departments.” He described how defending police in civil rights lawsuits cases would become more challenging if the statute of limitations were extended, according to court records.

The proposed deadline extension didn’t pass.

Brown is not the only one challenging Louisiana’s statute of limitations. Anthony Monroe claims he was violently attacked in 2019 by Louisiana State Police troopers but didn’t file his lawsuit until about two years later. A district court rejected his suit, citing the missed one-year deadline, after which the ACLU of Louisiana appealed to the Fifth Circuit. That case is also pending.

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Before coming to Verite, Richard A. Webster spent the past two and a half years as a member of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network. He investigated allegations of abuse against the Jefferson Parish...