Fourth Circuit Revives State Claims in Police-Involved Shooting

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – The Fourth Circuit ruled Monday that a Maryland police officer is entitled to qualified immunity from constitutional claims stemming from the 2012 shooting, but must still face the victim’s state law claims.

As recounted by U.S. Circuit Judge Barbara Milano Keenan in her 20-page ruling, plaintiff Damon Wilson appeared at the home of his former girlfriend, non-party Mynia Johnson, to see the couple’s two daughters.  When Johnson didn’t answer her door, Wilson knocked and banged on the door, demanding the see the girls.

As Wilson grew more angry, he kicked down Johnson’s door and began yelling at Johnson and one of her male guests, Keenan wrote. The argument between Wilson and Johnson continued outside the apartment, where Wilson slapped the woman. When she threatened to call the police, the two struggled over her cellphone, which fell into a storm drain.

Keenan says Wilson then left the scene and went to his brother’s home, gathered a pocket knife, and then headed back to his ex-girlfriend’s home, where he intended to commit suicide. In the meantime, Johnson called the police, and Prince George County Officer Brendan Gill had arrived at the scene.

At this point, the ruling says, Gill and Johnson were standing outside the woman’s apartment when they saw Wilson approaching. At this point, the details originally argued by the plaintiff and defendant in the federal court in Greenbelt, Maryland begin to diverge.

Gill said he told Johnson to go inside her apartment and that he then began to try to talk to Wilson as the two men walked toward each other. Gill says Wilson pulled a shiny object from his pocket, which the officer later identified as a knife.

Gill claimed as Wilson grew closer, he ignored orders to drop the weapon and instead slashed his own throat and began stabbing himself in the chest. Gill says he continued to tell Wilson to drop the weapon, but when the man came within 10 and 15 feet of him, he felt his life was in danger and he discharged his gun, shooting Wilson at least five times in the torso.

Wilson didn’t issue with many of these details, but critically, he claimed to be no closer than 20 feet from the officer and some witnesses corroborated his account. Both the plaintiff and defense also stated that at no point did Wilson point the knife at the officer.

And it was these details that caused the three-judge panel to struggle with the case. While there is considerable case law on police-involved shootings, Keenan says, there is no clear consensus on when an officer is on notice that his use of force is a violation of an individual’s constitutional rights.

On top of that, due the details of the case, it didn’t comport clearly with the legal precedent the panel initially reached for.

“Ultimately, this case simply is not an ‘obvious” one,” Keenan writes. In the end, there simply is no precedent for a case centered on an officer-involved shooting when the victim was accused of a violent crime, was holding a knife and harming himself, and refused to obey the officer’s commands.

“When an individual was armed, we have held that the ‘mere possession’ of a deadly weapon by the individual did not justify the use of deadly force,” she says. “However, when additional facts indicated that an armed person posed a threat of harm to the officers or others, we have held that the use of deadly force was objectively reasonable.”

“Upon our review of relevant precedent, we hold that it was not clearly established law in October 2012 in the Supreme Court, this Circuit, or in the Court of Appeals of Maryland, that an officer shooting an individual under such circumstance would be engaging in an unconstitutional use of excessive force,” Keenan continued.

As a result, she said, Gill is entitled to qualified immunity on Wilson’s constitutional claims. “We emphasize, however, that as of the date this opinion issues, law enforcement officers are now on notice that such conduct constitutes excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment,” Keenan says.

The panel then moved to the matter of Wilson’s state law claims. It concluded “because the district court erroneously concluded that Officer Gill’s use of force was reasonable, the court did not address fully the question of immunity under Maryland law,” and remanded the case to the lower court for further proceedings.

A representative of the Prince George County Police did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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