CASE #7 – Celestine v. Bissell et al. (EDLA (Closed))

Parish: Orleans

Police Department: New Orleans Police Department

The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, alongside Venable LLP, is now representing Mr. Michael Celestine—a Black man who was chased, seized, and arrested after an officer noted an alleged “bulge” in his clothing. Mr. Celestine spent more than a year incarcerated during the deadly COVID-19 pandemic before his criminal charges, including resisting an officer, were dismissed. 

On the cold afternoon of January 13, 2020, an officer was surveilling the allegedly “high crime” area where Mr. Celestine was staying with a friend when the officer called nearby patrollers. It was the officer’s belief that Mr. Celestine was concealing a handgun based on an alleged bulge in his clothing. However, Mr. Celestine was wearing layers on that cold afternoon—begging the question of what was actually seen by the officer at issue. 

One of the defendant officers immediately resorted to excessive force, while others stood by and failed to make any attempt to protect Mr. Celestine, despite his repeated pleas of “I can’t breathe.” Because of the officers’ wrongful conduct—both in using excessive force against Mr. Celestine and in failing to intervene—the complaint alleges that all of the involved officers should be held liable for the harm that Mr. Celestine endured that afternoon.

The amended complaint accuses the involved officers of excessive force in violation of Mr. Celestine’s Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, among other claims. It seeks damages for the physical harm that Mr. Celestine endured, including taser wounds on his buttock and right leg, lasting back pain, and the development of tachycardia and dyspnea.

The amended complaint alleges that “Defendant [officer] also used excessive and objectively unreasonable force when he pointed his department issued firearm at Mr. Celestine and threatened ‘I will fucking shoot you.’ “Mr. Celestine did not pose a threat to Defendant [officer] as he ran—facing forward and without reaching into any pockets—and contrary to Defendant [officer’s] assertions, nothing from the body camera footage revealed that Mr. Celestine ever reached into his pockets or drew a gun while running. Without fear of imminent bodily danger, Defendant [officer’s] decision to pull his firearm on Mr. Celestine was not objectively reasonable given the facts.”

As is customary in Louisiana federal courts—though extremely prejudicial to the plaintiff and lacking in legal mandate—Mr. Celestine’s civil case was stayed pending his criminal prosecution. Those proceedings took place over twelve months, thus further delaying justice for Mr. Celestine. Nevertheless, in January 2021, all charges against Mr. Celestine stemming from this brutal encounter with police were dropped by the district attorney’s office. He was then released from jail after a ruthless and inhumane year of incarceration during the height of the Covid pandemic. Inherently prejudicial over-policing and surveillance led to these events that have forever affected Mr. Celestine; yet, it is obvious that proactive, real-time surveillance of residential areas paints all residents as potential threats and sets the stage for racial profiling and unconstitutional stops, searches, and uses of force.

In December 2022, Mr. Celestine and the defendants reached an agreement to settle their claims. In doing so, the defendants admitted no liability.

The defendants in the case are:

  • Bryan Bissell, officer of the New Orleans Police Department
  • Cody O’Dell, officer of the New Orleans Police Department
  • Daniel Grijalva, officer of the New Orleans Police Department
  • Doe Insurance Companies 1-10 (yet unknown insurance agencies doing business in the state who provide or provided insurance to Defendants against the kinds of claims asserted in the complaint)

The complaint is online here.

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