ATLANTA (CN) — Attorneys for a Georgia police officer asked an 11th Circuit panel Tuesday to overturn a federal judge and find that he is entitled to qualified immunity on a mother’s claim that he violated her 10-year-old son’s civil rights by accidentally shooting the boy.
On July 10, 2014, Deputy Sheriff Michael Vickers – alongside other Coffee County police officers and Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents– entered Amy Corbitt’s property during an operation to catch a criminal suspect.
The officers believed that their suspect was hiding near Corbitt’s mobile home. In a federal lawsuit filed in 2016, Corbitt claims that no one on the property knew the suspect.
The officers ordered everyone on Corbitt’s property, including several young children, to get on the ground. According to Corbitt’s complaint, several of the children were held at gunpoint throughout the ordeal.
While Vickers was standing less than 2 feet away from Corbitt’s 10-year-old son, he fired two shots at a family dog named Bruce that had approached the officers from underneath Corbitt’s home.
Vickers missed the dog but one of the bullets hit Corbitt’s son in the back of his right knee.
According to Corbitt’s complaint, none of the adults or children on the property resisted the officers’ orders. None of the officers tried to restrain the dog before Vickers shot at it.
Corbitt claimed that Vickers violated her son’s Fourth and 14th Amendment rights to be free from excessive force and unlawful seizure and asked for $2 million in damages.
Vickers argued that he is entitled to qualified immunity from the lawsuit and no constitutional violation occurred because he never intended to shoot the child.
Last year, a federal judge ruled that a Fourth Amendment seizure “occurs when an officer intentionally sets into motion an instrumentality that has the effect of restricting the plaintiff’s movement.”
U.S. District Judge Lisa Wood found that Vickers “effectuated a seizure even before firing his weapon” by holding the children on the ground at gunpoint and leading them to believe they were not free to leave.
“A jury could find that Vickers intended to shoot the animal in order to maintain his control of the situation and keep plaintiffs from escaping while the animal distracted plaintiffs. And his action had the effect of continuing to seize the plaintiffs–they did not budge when he fired his gun,” she wrote.
The ruling continued, “Because Vickers shot his gun for the purpose of carrying out the seizure, and a seizure occurred, Vickers’s not intending to shoot [the child] does not negate that seizure.”
On Tuesday, attorneys for Vickers argued in front of an 11th Circuit panel that he cannot be held liable for a constitutional violation since his intention was only to shoot the dog, not the boy.
“This case turns on whether the officer intended to shoot the child,” attorney Richard Strickland argued. “This is one of those cases where maybe the plaintiffs pled too much, since they noted that the intent was to shoot the dog.”
Strickland argued that Vickers’ accidental shooting did not transform the detention of the boy into an unlawful seizure or use of excessive force.
But Senior U.S. Circuit Judge R. Lanier Anderson questioned whether the seizure had already occurred by the time the shooting took place.
“It seems to me this child was already seized. [He] was on the ground at the command of the officer,” Anderson said.
The judge continued, “There must be intent to seize a person… If you’re correct that seizure only occurred when the bullet hit the child, you’re saying there was no intent to seize that child? And even if the child were already seized, I’m not sure that the law is clearly established because there has not been any case where there’s been a seizure and then an accident happens.”
But attorney Ashleigh Madison, representing Corbitt and her son, argued that a definitive and unlawful seizure occurred even before the shooting took place.
“Seizure began when [the child] was instructed to get on the ground. The bullet was a continuation of that. The test is whether the person feels they are not free to move around. The use of force on someone who is not a suspect and is not resisting or posing a threat is already excessive,” Madison argued.
Strickland asked the 11th Circuit to overturn the district court’s decision denying qualified immunity to Vickers and remand the case with instructions to dismiss all of the claims against Vickers.
U.S. Circuit Judges Elizabeth Branch and Charles Wilson joined Anderson on the panel. They did not indicate when they might issue a decision in the case.