11th Circuit: Officer Granted Qualified Immunity After Shooting Innocent Homeowner at Wrong Address

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.

Case of Michigan Man Sitting in WV Jail Begs the Question: Do Police Need a Warrant to Enter/Search/Seize an RV or Motorhome?

In my last video I featured the case of a Michigan man currently rotting in a West Virginia jail for the high crime of traveling through West Virginia with a few hemp plants, possibly marijuana, I don’t know. A video of him refusing to consent to police entering his RV was shown in a Youtube video by the Real News Network, highlighting the actions of the Milton Police Department (which is in Cabell County, WV), including the fact that they take in a huge amount of fines as a result of their policing, despite having only around 2,500 residents. This begs the question, first of all, in general, do police need a warrant to enter, search, seize, etc., an RV or motorhome? Or is it just like regular automobiles, where only probable cause is required, rather than a warrant? Here’s the video, and below I’ll post an explanation of the applicable law:

Do police need a warrant to search an RV?

The Fourth Amendment generally requires the police to obtain a warrant before conducting a search. There is a well-established exception to this requirement, however, for automobile searches. See, e.g., Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 153, 45 S.Ct. 280, 69 L.Ed. 543 (1925). Under this exception, “[i]f a car is readily mobile and probable cause exists to believe it contains contraband, the Fourth Amendment thus permits police to search the vehicle without more.” Pennsylvania v. Labron, 518 U.S. 938, 940, 116 S.Ct. 2485, 135 L.Ed.2d 1031 (1996). Thus, once police have probable cause, they may search “every part of the vehicle and its contents that may conceal the object of the search.” Id. 

In California v. Carney, 471 U.S. 386, 390, 105 S.Ct. 2066, 85 L.Ed.2d 406 (1985), the Supreme Court held that a mobile home, on the facts presented, was more characteristic of an automobile than a fixed residence. 

The Court did look to the nature of the location where the vehicle was discovered, but only to ascertain whether the vehicle itself was, in an ontological sense, in use as a “movable vessel” or as a fixed residence. Hence, the Court’s reference to a “place not regularly used for residential purposes,” Carney, 471 U.S. at 392, 105 S.Ct. 2066 — from which the police would be less likely to infer that the object was residential in nature — served as a guidepost to determine, whether the object encountered was a vehicle or a residence. 

Summed up: was the RV on a public road, or situated such that it is reasonable to conclude that the RV was not being used as a residence?

1. Is the vehicle readily mobile? Absent an immediate search and seizure, could it have quickly been moved beyond reach of the police? Was the vehicle licensed “to operate on public streets” and subject to inspection as a motor vehicle?

2. Was the vehicle so situated that an objective observer would conclude that it was eing used not as a residence, but as a vehicle?

3. The search still must be reasonable under the circumstances. Was the search that occurred otherwise reasonable as would have been approved by a neutral judge had the officer applied for a search warrant?

If the vehicle can be categorized somewhere within the realm of a residence, rather than an automobile, then a warrant may be required. As with many search and seizure issues, the result will turn on the particular facts of each case. Or they should anyways…..

Brooke County Man Arrested in his Yard for Cursing – Lawsuit Incoming

Brooke County, West Virginia Sheriff’s Department deputies were called out to a neighbor’s complaint about dogs getting out of their yard. When they approached and talked to the dog’s owner, on private property, they were asked to leave. Some swear words were utilized by the dog’s owner. The cops then protect and serve the man, as shown and described in the video.

The body cam footage features Brooke County Deputy Niles Cline (not Crane, lol). The other deputy, Shane Logston’s body cam footage didn’t survive, because the “battery was dead.” The criminal charges were dismissed with prejudice through the assistance of Attorney Alex Risovich, who in turn brought the case to me. We will now seek justice through a civil lawsuit in federal court, for the violation of this man’s federally protected civil rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. Section 1983.

Lackluster’s video on the same incident:

Federal lawsuit filed against Parkersburg Police officers caught on video setting up a false arrest

Recently we filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in federal court, alleging that Parkersburg, West Virginia police officers were caught on video setting up the false arrest of a man for allegedly committing battery on a police officer. Fortunately there was surveillance footage, which was shown at the man’s jury trial, resulting in his acquittal. Warrantless arrests require the existence of probable cause. If no probable cause exists, for instance in the event that the arresting officers themselves create the alleged nonexistent crime, the Fourth Amendment is violated. “False arrest” is basically a type of unreasonable search and seizure.

Here’s the complaint, and the video will follow shortly:

Update on the Family Court Judge Search Case Litigation

Recently the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals censured and fined West Virginia Family Court Judge Louise Goldston for searching the home of my client. That put an end to the judicial disciplinary proceedings over that issue. However, the federal civil rights lawsuit remains pending. Prior to the state supreme court opinion being released, Judge Goldston had filed a motion to dismiss in that case, asserting absolute judicial immunity, and we had filed our response brief, arguing essentially that judicial immunity did not apply because searching my client’s residence was not a “judicial act.”

On December 3, 2021, the federal court, sua sponte (on its own without request by a party), entered an order directing both my client and the defendant judge to file a supplemental brief opining whether the state supreme court opinion had an effect on the outcome of the federal court’s ruling, which has yet to come, those supplemental briefs being due this past Friday. Here’s the order:

Both parties filed responses on Friday afternoon, which will be posted below, in their entirety. What I think the Court was hopefully getting at, which we argued in our supplemental brief, is that the West Virginia Supreme Court opinion very well may be entirely dispositive of the main issues in the pending federal case. Why? Because Judge Goldston was the defendant in that underlying state case and had a full and fair opportunity at litigating all issues in that case. A federal court cannot thereafter rule differently. This would violate the Constitution, as we pointed out in our supplemental brief.

The West Virginia Supreme Court held conclusively that Judge Goldston was not performing a judicial act when she searched my client’s home on March 4, 2020, but rather was acting in a law enforcement executive capacity. The issue of whether the conduct complained of was a “judicial” act in nature is one of the requisites to get past absolute judicial immunity. Therefore, a federal court cannot subsequently issue a different ruling on the same issue against the same defendant. Moreover, the state supreme court also concluded under an even higher burden than a civil lawsuit requires (clear and convincing evidence) that Judge Goldston violated both the federal and state constitutions when she invaded the sanctity of my client’s home on that day. This arguably disposes of much of the civil case, by itself, assuming judicial immunity does not apply.

These are interesting and unusual issues. Thus, please feel free to read the supplemental brief I prepared. You can compare and contrast her response and reach your own conclusion. I’ll definitely provide an update once we receive the federal court’s ruling on this.

Here’s the underlying West Virginia Supreme Court opinion.

Analysis of Recent Police Videos with Guest LACKLUSTER

Join me and special guest LACKLUSTER, tonight to watch, discuss and analyze some recent police videos making the rounds, including the OIS in Tucson of the guy in the power chair. And more….. LIVE at 7pm ET – Freedom is Scary, Ep. 84.

Federal civil rights lawsuit filed against Mercer County Deputies for excessive force during “domestic disturbance” call

Today we filed a federal Section 1983 civil rights lawsuit alleging multiple counts of civil rights violations related to allegations of excessive force which occurred during a “domestic disturbance” call involving my client, Melvin Sargent. Following a non-violent argument with his wife, deputies from the Mercer County Sheriff’s Department arrived at his home.

Due to the fact that he was open-carrying a pistol in a retention holster, as he usually did, and as he was legally entitled to do, Mr. Sargent went out of his way to raise his hands in the air and allow the officers to disarm him, following their arrival. However, as the complaint alleges, after being disarmed, he was punched in the face with a closed fist, and subjected to violence from there. His hand was boot-stomped, which resulted in a fractured hand.

After handcuffs were applied behind his back and placed in the rear of the police cruiser, his hand began to swell and cause severe pain. When he complained about the pain, the deputy violently pushed him and began punching him again. He then sprays pepper spray in his eyes for 3 to 5 seconds, and then shuts him inside the police cruiser. Afterwards the deputy walks over to Mr. Sargent’s significant other, who was filming video, where you can see his black armored knuckle gloves, covered with my client’s blood.

Here’s the filed complaint:

WV Supreme Court Censures Family Court Judge Goldston for Illegal Search

Just a few minutes ago, the West Virginia Supreme Court issued their opinion in the Family Court Judge search case, censuring Judge Louise Goldston for performing an illegal search at the home of a litigant – my client, Matt Gibson. Though the Court elected not to raise the recommended fine of $1,000, the Court declined to opt for the less-serious written “reprimand.” Thankfully, the Court dismissed the Family Court Judicial Association’s arguments that Family Court judge have the power to engage in home searches disguised as “home views”:

We begin with a threshold question: Did Judge Goldston view the ex-husband’s home, or did she search it? We find that she searched it. A “view” is “the act or proceeding by which a tribunal goes to observe an object that cannot be produced in court because it is immovable or inconvenient to remove….”

We agree that the ex-husband’s home was “immovable” and certainly “inconvenient” to produce in court. View, BLACK’S LAW DICTIONARY (11th ed. 2019). However, Judge Goldston did not go to the property to observe the ex-husband’s house; she went there to locate and seize certain of its contents—pictures, DVDs, and other items of personal property. These items of personal property were not “immovable or inconvenient to remove” from the home. Ibid. In fact, the ex-wife removed many of these items during the so-called “view.” Accordingly, we find that Judge Goldston’s actions at the residence were not a view.

On the contrary, the record is clear that Judge Goldston went to the property to locate things, not simply to observe them. Her own words support this conclusion. When the ex-husband demanded a list of what she was seeking, she appeared to reply, “[y]ou have a list of everything [unintelligible] attached to the order.” When the ex- husband professed not to “know where some of it’s at[,]” she replied, “Well, we’re gonna find it.”

Looking for things is a “search” by any sensible definition of the term. As the United States Supreme Court stated in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 16 (1968), “it is nothing less than sheer torture of the English language to suggest that a careful exploration of the outer surfaces of a person’s clothing all over his or her body in an attempt to find weapons is not a ‘search’”.

Searches are an activity of the executive department. State ex rel. Parma Cmty. Gen. Hosp. v. O’Donnell, 2013-Ohio-2923, ¶ 7 (stating that “searches are executive in nature.”). “Indeed, searches are so quintessentially executive in nature that even a judge who participates in one acts ‘not * * * as a judicial officer, but as an adjunct law enforcement officer.’” State ex rel. Hensley v. Nowak, 52 Ohio St. 3d 98, 99, 556 N.E.2d 171, 173 (1990)….

In light of these clear prohibitions, we hold that the West Virginia Constitution forbids a judicial officer to participate in a search because a search is an exercise of executive power. W. Va. Const. art. 5, § 1. Because Judge Goldston plainly engaged in such a search, we find that the so- called “view” was improper.

Body Cam shows Judge flip out at Traffic Stop – now charged with abusing authority

A West Virginia Circuit Court judge has been charged with violating the rules of judicial conduct after he verbally accosted a young police officer in his jurisdiction who had pulled him over for allegedly using his cell phone while driving and abusing his power. I obtained the raw body cam footage. This happened in Moorefield, West Virginia. During the stop, the judge calls the officer’s supervisor and allegedly attempts to stop the issuance of a ticket. After the stop he makes even more phone calls, and even shows up at the mayor’s house later that evening. He was investigated and charged by judicial disciplinary authorities.

Here’s the body cam footage:

Here’s the Statement of Charges:

Here’s a media report from the West Virginia Record detailing the matter: https://wvrecord.com/stories/611358165-circuit-judge-charged-with-verbally-attacking-officer-after-traffic-stop-abusing-his-power

Rittenhouse Trial Closing Arguments Post-Trial Analysis

Closing arguments today in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial. Post-trial legal analysis, Live at 7pm ET. Also, the firearms possession count – count 6 – was dismissed by the judge prior to closing arguments beginning. The evidence is closed and attorneys for each side gets to make their arguments to the jury. Here’s my take…. Join me Live at 7:00 p.m. ET. Freedom is Scary – Ep. 83.