(CN) – A Treasure Coast sheriff and his deputy must face a lawsuit over the death of a Port St. Lucie man who was shot to death in his garage after deputies responded to a noise complaint, a federal judge ruled.
As recounted by U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenberg in her 26-page ruling, defendant Deputy Christopher Newman and another officer went to the home of Gregory Vaughn Hill Jr., on Jan. 14, 2014, due to a noise complaint about loud music coming from his garage.
The deputies said they knocked on the front door and the garage door, and when 30-year-old Hill opened the latter, he was holding a gun.
According to the May 16 ruling, Newman claimed he order Hill to drop the gun, but Hill closed the garage door instead, raising his gun in the process.
Newman fired through the garage door four times; three bullets hit Hill, including one to the head.
A SWAT team arrived to secure the scene, but it was another four hours before the officers determined Hill had died.
A later autopsy revealed Hill had a blood alcohol level five times the legal limit for driving.
Deputy Newman and St. Lucie County Sheriff Ken Mascara sought immunity over the incident, but during a May 4 hearing, Judge Rosenberg heard a different, contradictory explanation of the events leading to Hill’s death.
Witnesses at the scene, including Hill’s young daughter sitting across the street, did not see a gun. They also did not hear Newman warn Hill to drop the weapon. The other deputy only heard Newman say, “Hey.”
When police recovered Hill’s body they discovered he did have a gun. It was unloaded and in his back pocket.
“In light of these facts, it is reasonable to infer (even assuming the shot to the head was delivered last) that the heavily intoxicated Mr. Hill did not move the handgun into his back pocket after the garage door closed,” Judge Rosenberg wrote, explaining her decision not to grant summary judgment to Newman. “No evidence in the record indicates that either Deputy Newman or Deputy Lopez saw a gun anywhere other than in Mr. Hill’s right hand before the shooting occurred. Thus, viewed in the light most favorable to plaintiff, the record supports the inference that neither officer had reason to believe Hill was armed.”
With Judge Rosenberg’s ruling against Newman’s summary judgment claim, the deputy will now face a jury trial over claims of battery and violating Hill’s civil rights.
Sheriff Mascara, in his official capacity, will face a negligence claim for Newman’s improper use of his firearm and for improperly training deputies. However, Judge Rosenberg ruled there was no evidence of a policy of excessive force inside the department. In addition, she wrote the damage to Hill’s home by the SWAT team is not the sheriff department’s fault.
Hill’s mother, Viola Bryant, filed the wrongful death complaint last year in St. Lucie County Circuit Court. It was removed to the federal court a few months later.
Neither the Lucie County Sheriff’s Office nor its attorney, Summer Barranco, responded to a request for comment, but after Newman was cleared of wrongdoing by a grand jury months after the shooting, Sheriff Mascara defended the officer’s actions.
“It is never an easy decision for a deputy to discharge his weapon – but it is, at times, a necessary one,” he said in a statement.
“My deputies deserve to go home to their families and loved ones at the end of their shift, and when facing the threat of an armed individual, they are absolutely right to neutralize that threat,” Mascara said.
Bryant is represented by Jacksonville-based attorney John Michael Phillips. He could not be reached for comment.