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.

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:

SCOTUS Issues Two Qualified Immunity Opinions this Week

This week the Supreme Court issued two separate rulings in qualified immunity cases involving allegations of excessive use of force by police officers. One out of the 9th circuit, involving an officer placing a knee on a suspect’s back for 8 seconds, and a second one involving a suspect who was shot and killed by police officers while charging at an officer with a hammer.

You may have seen the headlines around the interwebs about the SCOTUS strengthening qualified immunity in these two cases, or somehow changing the law in favor of the police. Is this the case? Since excessive force cases are my favorite, let’s go through these together. #QualifiedImmunity #ExcessiveForce #SCOTUS Freedom is Scary Ep. No. 78 (prerecorded, but scheduled to play at 10/20 at 8:00 p.m. ET)

Police Officer Fired and Charged with Perjury after Deposition

Remember my video with Kentucky Lawyer Chris Wiest about his excessive force lawsuit involving the Kentucky State Police back in March? One of the police officers involved was fired and charged with perjury after he was caught lying in the deposition in Chris’ civil lawsuit.

A former Kentucky State trooper has been criminally charged with perjury after denying under oath that he beat a man with a flashlight in April 2020.

Thomas Czartorski was named in a lawsuit alleging troopers used excessive force against Alex Hornback of Shepherdsville while executing a bench warrant. The lawsuit also alleged that Hornback’s parents recorded the officers beating him, and that a trooper deleted the footage. But a home security video captured the incident. A lieutenant with the Kentucky State Police accused Czartorski in a complaint filed Thursday of lying during a January deposition when he said he didn’t use any force during the arrest. Czartorski turned himself in Friday afternoon at the courthouse on a felony charge of first-degree perjury, according to his attorney, Josh Schneider. The charge carries a penalty of one to five years in prison.

https://kycir.org/2021/07/09/this-former-ky-trooper-denied-using-force-under-oath-the-video-says-he-did/

Here’s a video I uploaded yesterday on it – Freedom is Scary Ep. 67: