Andrew Joseph III, 14, life was cut short on Feb. 7, 2014, when he was hit by a vehicle while attempting to cross Interstate 4 in Tampa, Florida, but his parents and family supporters have argued for years, had it not been for the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office, he would have never been placed in harm’s way in the first place.
“Andrew Joseph III has really been the face for why we must end qualified immunity,” said Melina Abdullah Co-Founder of Black Lives Matter Grassroots and advocate for Joseph’s family.
Now, after eight years of legal wrangling, Joseph’s parents finally get a chance to hold deputies accountable in federal court with a $30 million wrongful death lawsuit.
“This is something they’ve fought for a very long time, for eight in a half years,” said Abdullah.
In 2014, Joseph along with many other children were at the Florida State Fair when a fight broke out among some of the kids, causing Hillsborough Sheriff’s deputies to intervene. Abdullah says Joseph was waiting in line to get on an amusement ride and not part of the fight but was rounded up along with the other children and kicked out of the fair by deputies.
“They criminalized a total of 99 exclusively Black children, were rounded up at student day at the state fair, and searched, their parents were never called, and they were treated as criminals, and they wound up loading them up into vehicles and dumping them on the side of the interstate,” Abdullah said. (The children actually were released on a street outside the fairground and near the interstate, not on the highway.)
According to court documents obtained by the Tampa Bay Times, the children were in deputies’ custody for a little less than 45 minutes, then placed in sheriff’s vans and driven away from fair entrance gates and finally dropped off at the edge of fairgrounds property near a busy Interstate 4. The Times reported a deposition from another teenager with Joseph at the time of the accident said a deputy guarding one of the fair entrances told the children, ‘The only thing separating them from the main entrance gate to the fair is the interstate,’ prompting the children, including 14-year-old Joseph to cross the interstate, where he was ultimately hit by a SUV. The driver was not charged.
“They chose to blame him for his death by stating things like, he wasn’t wearing the appropriate clothing attire to be seen in the evening hours of the interstate ramp towards I-4,” said Reverend Carl Soto, Co-Founder of Black Lives Matter Restoration Polk Inc. and family advocate of the Joseph family.
Soto says ever since 2014, Joseph’s parents, Deanna and Andrew Joseph Jr. have tried to hold Hillsborough Sheriff’s deputies accountable for Andrew Joseph III’s death, but despite their wrongful death lawsuit filed on Feb. 3, 2016, against the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office, the Florida State Fair Authority and Hillsborough County School Board, their case has been repeatedly delayed with appeals thanks to the Sheriff’s Office citing qualified immunity.
“Qualified immunity is the unjust legal doctrine that says police and law enforcement don’t have to be accountable, they use qualified immunity as a shield to block them from ever having to go to court, this is why eight and a half years later, we’re just getting a day in court,” said Abdullah.
Qualified immunity protects government officials from lawsuits alleging the official violated a person’s rights and only allowing lawsuits where officials violated a clearly established statutory or constitutional right. The Josephs finally made a breakthrough last year on October 12, when a panel of federal judges rejected the sheriff’s office appeal, preventing them from using qualified immunity in the case, clearing a path to a federal trial.
“The Sheriff’s Office attempted to appeal to the district court of appeals twice, and in both of those occasions the district court of appeals in the 11th circuit, ruled against the Sheriff’s Office as well and the second time specifically, ruled it back to federal Judge Scriven and ordering trial,” said Soto.
The federal wrongful death case blames the sheriff’s office for Joseph’s death and for violating his civil rights. The trial is expected to last until the end of September. Atlanta Black Star sought comment from attorneys representing the Joseph family and the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office but did not hear back because of the ongoing trial.
On the second day of trial, families of Emmett Till, Oscar Grant, Jacob Blake, Michael Brown and Breonna Taylor were at the federal courthouse in Tampa, Florida, supporting the Joseph family.
“They’re also hopeful there will be some semblance of accountability for the theft of their child’s life,” Abdullah said of the family’s wishes for the federal trial.
The day before the trial began on Sept. 12 the Joseph family and the Florida State Fair Authority reached an undisclosed settlement. A jury is expected to decide if deputies will be held accountable in Andrew Joseph III’s death at the trial’s conclusion.
Joseph’s case has garnered wide-ranging support over the years including from several Black members of Congress. In March 2021, Democratic Reps. Cori Bush of Missouri and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts introduced legislation to end qualified immunity, but that bill has since stalled in the House of Representatives since its introduction.