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Death Benefits Denied in Cop-Shooting Case

NEW ORLEANS (CN) - The family of a suicidal man killed by a Louisiana deputy sheriff is not entitled to collect $179,000 in accidental-death benefits, the 5th Circuit ruled.

In the same ruling, the three-judge panel also found police officers can enter a home without a warrant based on a threat that an individual poses on himself.

The 5th Circuit dismissed all claims against Livingston Parish Sheriff's Deputy Joel Arnold and Sheriff Willie Graves because they are protected by qualified immunity.

The Rice family alleged several claims against the officers involved in the January 27, 2010, death of their father, including excessive and unreasonable use of deadly force, battery, assault and false imprisonment.

They also claimed Reliastar Life Insurance Company owed them accidental death benefits under their father's employer-issued policy.

Gerald Rice, 54, was shot to death by Arnold after his nephew, Ryan Craig, called 911 to report that his uncle was sitting in his truck with a loaded gun to his head and threatening to kill himself, wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Edward Prado on behalf of the three-judge panel.

"Arnold and Deputy Johnson went to Rice's house in response to the 911 call. Craig told Arnold and Johnson that Rice was armed, had been drinking, had taken a lot of medication, and that Rice had a problem with law enforcement," the ruling says.

It continues: "Arnold and Johnson entered Rice's home without a warrant, and Arnold saw Rice sitting in his truck in his garage with a gun to his head."

The officers retreated to the kitchen, but Rice continued to brush aside their requests for him to put his weapon down, saying, "he wanted to come to the kitchen to get a beer," the ruling says/

"While Arnold and Johnson were in Rice's kitchen, they heard a single gunshot. Arnold and Johnson went to the garage and determined that Rice had not injured himself; it was later discovered that Rice had fire a single bullet into the wall in the garage."

But Rice still refused to relinquish his gun.

"Rice exited his truck and began walking toward the kitchen. Arnold repeatedly told Rice to put the gun down. While continuing to walk toward the kitchen, Rice stated, 'I want to commit suicide,'" the ruling says. "Arnold then fired four shots at Rice, hitting Rice in the chest three times. Johnson, who was also present in the kitchen at the time, did not fire at Rice. Rice later died from the gunshot wounds."

Rice was found to have consumed 11 prescription pills while drinking on the day he was shot.

He also told a bartender "it's over," and was heard revving his truck's engine while the garage door was closed, suggesting he may have been attempting to kill himself through carbon monoxide poisoning, the ruling says.

In denying Rice's family's accidental death claim, Reliastar said Rice "put himself in a position in which he should have known that serious injury or death could occur as a result of his actions."

The 5th Circuit ruled the insurance company did not abuse its discretion in determining the death was not accidental because it was not "an unexpected, external, violent and sudden event."

The circuit also found that Arnold's warrantless entry into Rice's home did not violate the man's Fourth Amendment rights because the officer reasonably believed that Rice "would imminently seriously injure himself."

"Today we reach that issue and hold that the threat an individual poses to himself may create an exigency that makes the needs of law enforcement so compelling that a warrantless entry is objectively reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court's discussion of the exigent circumstances exception to the warranty requirement supports our holding," Judge Prado wrote.

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