Appeals Court Says No Immunity For Cops Who Shot A Man Standing Motionless With His Hands In The Air

from the try-being-actually-reasonable-for-once,-officers dept

Federal judges continue to trip over themselves in their hurry to extend qualified immunity to law enforcement officers. No matter how egregious the violation -- and how simply wrong it appears to reasonable human beings -- cops can usually escape judgment by violating rights in new ways, ensuring there's no precedent that would make them aware they shouldn't do things like destroy someone's house after they've been given permission (and a key!) to enter.

This decision [PDF] from the Fifth Circuit (and the Fifth Circuit can be the worst about protecting the government from citizens it has aggrieved, stinging dissents from Judge Willett notwithstanding) involves officers who shot a man holding a knife. Given that judges seem to believe any weapon real or perceived that "threatens" an officer makes ensuing homicides wholly justifiable, this refusal by the court to bless the actions of reasonably-scared cops is more surprising than it should be.

The description of the events leading up to the shooting would seem to be laying groundwork for a QI-based dismissal:

In 2015, after a domestic dispute between Flores and his wife at Flores’s mother’s home, Flores’s mother called 9-1-1 for assistance. According to the 9-1-1 call transcript, Flores’s mother told the dispatcher that Flores beat up his wife and had “gone crazy”. Deputies Vasquez and Sanchez were dispatched to the residence in separate vehicles. While in route, dispatch advised Vasquez and Sanchez that Flores was upset, and that Flores wanted to commit “suicide by cop.” Vasquez was also informed that Flores had a knife.

The next paragraph, however, points to subverted expectations:

Twelve minutes elapsed between Vasquez’s arrival and the officers’ fatal shots at Flores. During those twelve minutes, the deputies had a number of encounters with Flores, and ultimately deescalated the situation. It was only after Flores was standing nearly thirty feet from the deputies, motionless, and with his hands in the air for several seconds that the officers looked at each other and then decided to shoot Flores. The officers each fired a shot, and Flores fell to the ground.

The Fifth Circuit says too many factual disputes remain unresolved. And one of the disputed facts is the officers' own testimony, which says something a cellphone camera recording of the incident does not: that officers were in danger of being attacked when they decided to shoot Flores as he stood motionless thirty feet away with his hands in the air.

Most significantly, the officers assert that “Deputies Vasquez and Sanchez were in imminent fear of death or serious bodily injury by the actions of Gilbert Flores at the time of the fatal shots.”

But the officers can't explain how they were in "imminent fear" when nothing about Flores' actions at the point he was shot indicated he was an imminent threat.

Flores had a knife, not a gun; was several feet away from the officers, the house, and the vehicle; had his hands in the air in a surrender position; and stood stationary in the officers’ line of sight. Under these facts taken in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, we conclude that the district court correctly identified material factual disputes as to whether the officers violated Flores’s Fourth Amendment rights.

There is no automatic grant of qualified immunity because these officers should have known killing someone in a situation like this would be unlawful.

A reasonable officer would have understood that using deadly force on a man holding a knife, but standing nearly thirty feet from the deputies, motionless, and with his hands in the air for several seconds, would violate the Fourth Amendment.

With this rejection, there's probably a settlement on the horizon for the survivors of the shooting victim. The district court refused to dismiss the suit and the Fifth Circuit Appeals Court says the lower court's reasoning is sound and the right of citizens to not be killed by cops when they don't pose a threat is clearly established. Chalk up a win for the citizens, who, far too often, come out on the losing end when qualified immunity is in play.

Filed Under: 5th circuit, immunity, police shooting, qualified immunity

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Mar 2020 @ 5:19am

    Re: Look, it was a standoff

    Not standing for hours 30ft away from some guy holding up his hands with a knife in them, catching a cold.

    Are you their mom or something?

    For once the officers acted like intellectuals, and you are still not satisfied.

    Neither is the court. Now they're going to get sued.

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