MONTGOMERY, Ala. (CN) – An 11th Circuit panel heard arguments Wednesday over whether Alabama police officers who shot a man in his front yard after a car chase should be immune from his excessive-force lawsuit.
Ronald Hunter, Jr. was shot multiple times on Dec. 16, 2013, following a car chase with Leeds city police officers that ended in Hunter’s driveway, court records show. Hunter survived the incident and sued Leeds and several officers in Alabama federal court, alleging use of excessive force.
In a March 2017 ruling, Chief U.S. District Judge Karon Bowdre found that the individual officers involved in the incident were not entitled to qualified immunity because it was unclear whether Hunter posed an imminent threat to the officers at the time of the shooting.
During oral arguments before an 11th Circuit panel Wednesday, the defendants’ attorney Hugh Lawley argued for immunity, saying the degree of force was reasonable given the totality of the circumstances.
He noted that officers first approached Hunter while responding to an emergency call that a child was being held and gunfire had been exchanged. He also said Hunter did not listen to an officer’s commands to raise his hands.
“We say it’s objectively reasonable,” said Lawley of the officers’ use of force.
At the heart of the dispute is whether Hunter pointed his gun at one of the officers. While Hunter claimed in his complaint that he did not point his weapon at anyone, he also pleaded guilty in a criminal case to menacing, after being charged with attempted murder.
According to Lawley, the indictment against Hunter specifically alleged that he had pointed a pistol at one of the officers.
“The indictment must state the facts,” said Lawley, contending that the plea agreement established the fact for the civil case.
Hunter’s attorney Tyrone Townsend contested that position, arguing that the issue of whether Hunter pointed the gun was “absolutely disputed” and that his client had simply agreed to a plea “that was in his best interest.”
U.S. Circuit Judge Gerald Tjoflat seemed unconvinced by the argument, however, saying, “I think he’s stuck with the guilty plea.”
Regardless, Townsend further argued that Hunter had been the victim of excessive force based on a number of other factors.
“The evidence is clear. My client never fired his gun,” said Townsend. “He had a pistol permit.”
U.S. Circuit Judge Kevin Newsom and Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Ronald Gilman of the Sixth Circuit, sitting by designation, joined Tjoflat on the panel.
The judges did not indicate when they will issue a ruling.