Democratic Reps. Cori Bush of Missouri and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts joined the family of Black teenager Andrew Joseph III -- who was fatally struck by a car after he was ejected from a county fair -- in a rally in front of the U.S. Department of Justice building Thursday in Washington, D.C., calling on Congress to pass legislation to end qualified immunity for police.
Joseph was 14 when he was fatally hit by a motorist in 2014 after he and several other students were kicked out of a student event at a state fair in Tampa, Florida, following accusations that some teens were starting fights and engaging in misconduct, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. Police arrested 12 people in that incident, and Joseph was one of roughly 100 who were kicked out.
Joseph's parents say they did not receive notification that their son was removed from the fairgrounds, nor did they receive a call asking for their child to be picked up.
After being removed from the state fair, Joseph was subsequently struck by a vehicle while trying to cross Interstate 4, a spokesperson from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office confirmed with ABC News.
His parents say his death could have been prevented if police had notified his parents that he was ejected from the fair, and have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and the Florida State Fair Authority.
"He never committed a crime. They never charged him with anything," Andrew Joseph Sr., the teen's father, said during a press conference Thursday.
"Eight years later, we still don't have a police report. Every time we try to go to court, they [the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office] files another appeal [using the legal defense of] qualified immunity," Joseph Sr. continued.
Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine that shields government officials and law enforcement from civil lawsuits in the event that a citizen's constitutional rights are violated.
The family says the sheriff's office has filed several appeals over the last eight years in an attempt to use qualified immunity as a defense, which they say has prolonged their pursuit of justice. In the latest appeal filed Oct. 12, 2021, a panel of federal judges rejected the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office's appeal, which would not allow them to use the legal doctrine in the case
"We will always have qualified immunity lurking in our case. Even after a district trial if we win, they will file an appeal for qualified immunity," Deanna Joseph, Andrew's mother, told ABC News.
"Even in the most egregious cases of brutality and misconduct, qualified immunity has allowed police officers, like the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, to use their badge as a shield from accountability. We can't allow these fatal injustices to go unchecked any longer," Pressley said at Thursday's rally.
A Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office spokesperson told ABC News that the death of Andrew Joseph was "a very tragic incident." Rules were changed following the teen's death and the sheriff's office is now required to contact parents if a minor is ejected from the fair.
"Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office has taken steps since then to make sure that people are safe and to make sure that the fair itself stays safe," the spokesperson said.
Bush urged President Joe Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland to publicly support ending qualified immunity.
"It is time for Congress and the president of the United States to tangibly commit to delivering justice for Black people. We need a real commitment. We need real progress. We need real action to end the crisis of police violence. We're standing before the Department of Justice today to send a message to our attorney general, Merrick Garland. We need you to publicly back ending qualified immunity. We need our president to publicly support ending qualified immunity," Bush said at the rally on Thursday, later adding, "We can't keep throwing money at law enforcement, and expecting how they operate to change."
In early February, during a visit with New York City Mayor Eric Adams, Biden laid out his proposed agenda for fighting against gun violence for which he vowed to call on Congress to approve half a billion dollars in appropriations spending to states and localities.
Roughly $300 million would be allocated for hiring more police officers, and the rest would be used for "evidence-based community violence interventions," a White House statement said.
In an interview with ABC News, the teenager's parents said they were disappointed about not seeing meaningful federal police reform passed in Congress. They also criticized the president for calling for more funding for police so they could have better resources and training to protect their communities.
"We are definitely looking at our president to come out in full force in support of accountability for police. ... Unfortunately, our president has been remiss in actually focusing on the real issue. The real issue is not more policing, it's more accountability that is needed. And I believe that's where President Joe Biden has missed the mark," Deanna Joseph said, referring to Biden's remarks during the State of the Union.