PHILADELPHIA (CN) - New Jersey State Police officers who killed a suspected car thief during a standoff by firing 39 rounds "for 10 solid seconds" must head to trial to answer excessive-force claims filed by estate of that suspect, who officers thought was holding a gun but had actually pulled out a crack pipe, the 3rd Circuit ruled.
The three-judge appeals panel found that the officers had justification to use deadly force in response to Eric Quick's "abrupt, threatening movement," but the number of bullets fired may have been excessive.
Five state troopers had responded to local police officers' pursuit of a stolen vehicle on the night of July 21, 2003. Quick allegedly abandoned the vehicle on Interstate 295 and fled into the woods. The state troopers gave chase until Quick became entangled in a thicket.
As three of the officers had their guns trained on Quick, they repeatedly ordered him to show his hands and freeze.
Quick, who appeared to be clutching an object tucked into the waistband of his sweatpants, refused to comply. "Suddenly, the suspect pulled his right hand out of his waistband, not as if he were surrendering, but quickly and as if he were drawing a pistol," the court summarized.
The three officers opened fire on the suspect, shooting a total of 39 rounds. Of the 18 bullets that hit Quick, 11 hit him from behind as he turned away from the officers.
"It turned out that Quick did not have a gun in his right hand; he held only a crack pipe," the summary continues. "The pipe was shaped like a cigarette - two inches long, cylindrical, and clear. A toxicology report suggests that Quick was under the influence of cocaine and heroin at the time of the incident."
A grand jury that investigated the case ultimately declined to indict the troopers, but Quick's estate filed suit in April 2004, claiming the officers violated Quick's Amendment rights by using excessive force. A New Jersey federal judge granted the officers summary judgment in 2009.
Waiting to see what Quick had drawn from his waistband could have proved fatal, but "a jury should decide whether the force became unreasonable," the 3rd Circuit said in reviving the case Friday.
The lower court's ruling had acknowledged that "the number of bullets fired appears to be 'excessive' in laymen's terms," but the judge said that there was "no evidence that any of the troopers fired mindlessly or paused and then resumed firing after Quick was on the ground facedown."
The appeals court's three-judge panel noted that a jury could find differently.
"Although Quick's weaponless right hand was fully visible immediately after the troopers began firing, the troopers continued to fire for roughly 10 seconds, shooting a total of 39 rounds," Judge D. Brooks Smith wrote for the court. "On these facts, a reasonable jury could conclude that the troopers should have recognized that Quick was unarmed and stopped firing sooner."
The ruling notes that the officers did have flashlights, which should have helped them see that Quick did not have a weapon when they were in the woods. The judges were also skeptical about the officers' explanation as to why more than half of the bullets that struck Quick do so from behind.
"We are, moreover, concerned by the fact that 11 of the 18 bullets that struck Quick hit him from behind," Smith wrote. "The troopers try to explain this by saying that Quick spun around and fell to the ground as the final shots were fired. Frankly, this explanation sounds a bit far-fetched."
As a result of the new ruling, the case will be remanded for further proceedings.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.