In June of 2016 in Henry County, Georgia. Police sergeant Patrick Snook arrived at the wrong house and shot and killed the innocent homeowner, William David Powell, standing in his driveway. Sharon Powell, his wife, fled a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging excessive force against the officer. The Northern District of GA ultimately granted Summary Judgment in favor of the officer, granting him qualified immunity from standing trial in the civil case. She appealed to the 11th Circuit, which issued a published opinion on February 8. Here’s the full opinion, which you should read. Below I will post my takeaways and the basic law on police shootings.
An officer may use deadly force when he:
(1) “has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others” or “that he has committed a crime involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical harm;”
(2) reasonably believes that the use of deadly force was necessary to prevent es- cape; and
(3) has given some warning about the possible use of deadly force, if feasible.
Quoting Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1, 11-12 (1985).
This case focused on “Garner Factor” number 3. Is an officer required, as a bright line rule, to issue a warning prior to firing at a homeowner who appears with a gun? The Court held no. Only if “feasible.”
On the subject of warnings, we “have declined to fashion an inflexible rule that, in order to avoid civil liability, an officer must always warn his suspect before firing — particularly where such a warning might easily have cost the officer his life.” Penley, 605 F.3d at 854 n.6 (cleaned up); see also Carr v. Tatangelo, 338 F.3d 1259, 1269 n.19 (11th Cir. 2003). And the Supreme Court has instructed us that a plaintiff “cannot establish a Fourth Amendment violation based merely on bad tactics that result in a deadly confrontation that could have been avoided.” City & Cnty. of San Francisco v. Sheehan, 135 S. Ct. 1765, 1777 (2015) (quotation marks omitted)…..
While it’s clear that in some circumstances an officer must warn before using deadly force where it’s feasible to do so, Garner, 471 U.S. at 11–12, decisions addressing how soon an officer is required to give a warning to an unarmed suspect do not clearly establish anything about whether or when a warning is required for armed suspects raising a firearm in the direction of an officer. See Garner, 471 U.S. at 4, 21 (unarmed teen burglary suspect); Perez, 809 F.3d at 1217 (unarmed man lying on his stomach); Lundgren, 814 F.2d at 603 n.1 (store owner who did not threaten the officer with a weapon). There is no obviously clear, any-reasonable-officer-would-know rule that when faced with the threat of deadly force, an officer must give an armed suspect a warning at the earliest possible moment. See White, 137 S. Ct. at 552 (concluding, where late-arriving officer shot armed suspect without giving a warning, it was not an obvious case under Garner’s general principles). Instead, what’s clearly established is that it “is reasonable, and therefore constitutionally permissible, for an officer to use deadly force when he has probable cause to believe that his own life is in peril.” Tillis v. Brown, 12 F.4th 1291, 1298 (11th Cir. 2021) (quotation marks omitted).https://media.ca11.uscourts.gov/opinions/pub/files/201913340.pdf
But see, Betton v. Belue, 942 F.3d 184 (4th Cir. 2019), from the Fourth Circuit, which was almost identical factually, but came out the other way. The difference? There was a factual dispute regarding whether the homeowner pointed the gun at the officer. That small detail probably made the difference, as the Court had to assume that the homeowner did not point the gun.
If Officer Belue or another officer had identified themselves as members of law enforcement, Officer Belue reasonably may have believed that Betton’s presence while holding a firearm posed a deadly threat to the officers. Cooper , 735 F.3d at 159 ; Elliott , 99 F.3d at 644. And had Betton disobeyed a command given by the officers, such as to drop his weapon or to “come out” with his hands raised, Officer Belue reasonably may have feared for his safety upon observing Betton holding a gun at his side. See, e.g. , Sigman v. Town of Chapel Hill , 161 F.3d 782 (4th Cir. 1998) (officer was justified in using deadly force after suspect failed to obey command to stop advancing toward officer while carrying a knife). However, under our precedent, Officer Belue’s failure to employ any of these protective measures rendered his use of force unreasonable.