After an extensive manhunt, officers cornered a 40-year-old suspect. “We gave chase, reengaged the suspect, he produced a handgun again, gunfire was exchanged, and the suspect was neutralized,” Henry County Sheriff Reginald B. Scandrett said at a news conference.
Authorities had launched a manhunt for the suspect accused of four shooting deaths on Saturday, offering a $10,000 reward for information that led to his arrest and prosecution. The 40-year-old was considered “armed and dangerous,” according to police. “Wherever you are, we will hunt you down in any hole you may be residing in and bring you to custody,” Scandrett said at the time. The motive is unknown, but Hampton Police Chief James Turner said the four homicides occurred at different locations, and that the suspect is a resident of the city of Hampton.
“The monster is dead,” Scandrett said. “The citizens of Hampton, the county of Henry, the metro Atlanta area, and the entire state of Georgia can breathe a little easier tonight. The suspect is off the street.”
Police Officer Immunity
Law enforcement officers rightly have broad authority to enforce laws, even if that enforcement requires the use of deadly force. However, this authorization is not unlimited. To a Marietta criminal defense lawyer, excessive force could be the basis for a civil lawsuit or an extenuating circumstance during criminal trial sentencing.
The Supreme Court created the qualified immunity doctrine in 1967’s Pierson vs. Ray. Jackson, Mississippi police officers confronted fifteen Freedom Riders in a coffee shop and asked them to leave. They refused and were subsequently found guilty of illegally congregating in a public place, Mississippi’s version of disturbing the peace. The Supremes backed the police officers, ruling that “[a] policeman’s lot is not so unhappy that he must choose between being charged with dereliction of duty if he does not arrest when he had probable cause, and being mulcted in damages if he does.”
Courts shaped the Pierson holding into the qualified immunity doctrine. This rule immunizes officers from excessive force lawsuits if:
- An officer performing discretionary functions
- Violated a clearly established Constitutional right
- That reasonable people knew about.
Officers who illegally use excessive force are also subject to criminal prosecution. Back in the day, prosecutors almost never pursued these cases. Ethnicity (e.g. white officer and black defendant) undoubtedly played a role. Additionally, however, most jurors almost always took police officers at their word, even if their stories were a little shaky.
Today, these actions are more common, partially because of the political climate, and partially because jurors no longer give police officers the benefit of the doubt.
This sea change in juror outlook often comes into play in other areas as well. If Officer Tom claims he smelled marijuana in a vehicle, many jurors won’t believe him unless the state produces corroborating evidence. So, prosecutors often offer more favorable deals in these cases to avoid trials.
Excessive force isn’t a legal defense in a criminal case. But it could be a mitigating circumstance during the punishment phase.
As mentioned, courts no longer turn a blind eye to excessive force. Psychological intimidation is often just as effective as physical force. Additionally, officers have non-lethal enforcement means at their disposal. A Taser is often more effective than a gun, especially at close range. Also as mentioned, jurors no longer take officers at their word. Jurors often don’t believe 6-2, 250-pound Officer Tom if he testifies that the 5-7, 170-pound suspect could evade capture and/or hurt him.
Significantly, a Marietta criminal defense lawyer must never confuse a legal defense with an extenuating circumstance. Excessive force usually has nothing to do with guilt or innocence. In fact, if an attorney tries to bring up excessive force during the guilt/innocence phase, the judge will probably exclude such evidence. Instead, excessive force is like the defendant’s good character. Both could impact the sentence.
It’s unclear who shot first in the Hampton standoff. It’s clear that bullets were flying, and someone could have easily been hurt or killed. In fact, bystanders are much more likely to be hurt or killed than suspects.
The qualified immunity doctrine usually applies in bystander shooting, high-speed chase, and other dangerous activities, unless a Marietta personal injury attorney proves:
- Policy Violation: Many law enforcement agencies have anti-chase and other policies that purport to protect bystanders. However, most of these polices are so vague that they don’t effectively prevent officers from doing anything. Ad hoc policies, like a dispatcher’s “do not pursue” order, are more specific.
- Extreme Recklessness: Police officers can ignore public safety laws, stop signs, and speed limits, at least in most cases. But qualified immunity doesn’t apply if officers shoot into crowds. This doctrine also doesn’t apply if officers pursue nonviolent suspects at high speeds through crowded areas.
If an attorney bypasses the qualified immunity doctrine, damages could include compensation for economic losses, such as medical bills, and noneconomic losses, such as pain and suffering. Additional punitive damages are available as well, in some extreme cases.
Incidentally, substantial damages are a component of a bystander injury or other excessive force case. Courts have consistently held that cuts, bruises, and other de minimis injuries don’t count.
Civil Liability Issues
Although it’s not likely, officers could be civilly and/or criminally liable for the suspect’s death in the above case. Property owner civil liability is a possibility as well. These survivors deserve closure and need financial compensation. A criminal court won’t provide either item in this situation.
Property owners have a legal duty to provide safe and secure environments for their invited guests. If they knew, or should have known, that an armed and dangerous man might target someone in the home, the owners had a duty to provide adequate security. Given the extreme nature of the threat, this duty probably included live security guards and other active protective measures.
A Marietta personal injury lawyer must prove all these elements by a preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not). Damages in a negligent security case are like the damages in a bystander injury claim.
Violent acts often have criminal and civil law consequences. For a free consultation with an experienced Marietta criminal defense attorney, contact The Phillips Law Firm, LLC. We routinely handle matters in Cobb County and nearby jurisdictions.