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Eleventh Circuit vacates judgment for defendants in civil rights lawsuit alleging police officer's excessive force, finds trial court erred in not questioning jurors about views on homosexuality

On November 22, 2017, in Berthiaume v. Smith, et al., No. 16-16345, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals vacated and reversed a judgment for the defendant City of Key West in a civil rights lawsuit alleging that a police officer had used excessive force in arresting the plaintiff. The plaintiff argued on appeal that the trial court had erred in denying the plaintiff’s request that prospective jurors be asked whether they harbored any biases or prejudices against persons who are gay or homosexual. The Eleventh Circuit noted that the police officers had been investigating a potential domestic battery between former partners of the same sex and the trial court was well aware that the sexual orientation of Berthiaume and his witnesses would be central facts at trial and were “inextricably bound up” with the issues to be resolved at trial. Quoting the U.S. Supreme Court in Rosales-Lopez v. United States, 451 U.S. 182, 192, 101 S. Ct. 1629, 1636 (1981), the Eleventh Circuit concluded that under these facts and circumstances there was a “reasonable possibility that [sexual orientation bias] might have influenced the jury.” The Court additionally noted that whether specific voir dire questioning is required in a given case is a fact-specific inquiry which looks to the totality of the circumstances presented in that case and whether the district court had notice of the nature of the dispute.