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Fourth Circuit: No Qualified Immunity for Deputies in Shooting of Armed Suspect

by Dale Chappell

An officer does not possess the unfettered authority to shoot a member of the public simply because that person is carrying a weapon,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit said, upholding the district court’s denial of defendant deputies’ request for summary judgment in a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 excessive force lawsuit filed against them.

On an early August morning in 2012 while responding to a domestic disturbance call, Haywood County Deputies Michael Price and Keith Beasley observed David Hensley and his two daughters scuffle on the front porch. They witnessed Hensley strike his older daughter with a handgun in his possession. He then walked off the porch towards the deputies. At that point, they exited their vehicle and fatally shot Hensley.

Whether the muzzle of the gun was pointed towards the ground or at the deputies as he approached them was in dispute. What wasn’t in dispute was the fact that the deputies neither announced their presence nor directed Beasley to drop the gun. The deputies acknowledged that they did neither; in fact, they admitted that neither of them ever spoke to Hensley. 

Hensley’s widow and daughters sued the deputies in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina under 42 U.S.C. §1983 for violating his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure, as well as supplemental claims under North Carolina law for assault, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and wrongful death.

After discovery in the case, the deputies moved for summary judgment, citing qualified immunity on the basis that they acted reasonably in using deadly force. The district court denied summary judgment, finding that “the deputies objectively lacked probable cause to believe that Hensley posed a threat of serious physical harm to them.” They appealed.

The Court of Appeals, taking all the facts found by the district court in light most favorable to Hensley as the non-moving party for summary judgment, considered whether the deputies violated clearly established law to determine if they qualified for immunity. For purposes of the summary judgment analysis, the Court must take as true that the muzzle of the gun was pointed towards the ground since that fact is most favorable to Hensley.

“Qualified immunity protects officers who commit constitutional violations but who, in light of clearly established law, could reasonably believe that their actions were lawful,” the Court explained. The question was whether the deputies believed they had the lawful authority to shoot Hensely in this situation.

In Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194 (2001), the U.S. Supreme Court set forth a two-step analysis for § 1983 claims. In the first step, courts must determine whether a constitutional violation occurred. If so, courts must then examine “whether the right violated was clearly established.” In the present case, the deputies failed to raise any argument that the right in question was not clearly established, and thus they waived any such argument.

The sole issue then was whether a constitutional violation occurred. That is, did the deputies violate Hensley’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizures (deadly force is a seizure) through their use of deadly force?

Under established law, police may use deadly force when there is probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm to himself or others. The Court reiterated the principle articulated in Cooper v. Sheehan, 735 F.3d 153 (4th Cir. 2013), that the “lawful possession of a firearm by a suspect at his home, without more, is an insufficient reason to justify the use of deadly force.” In addition, “Before an officer may use deadly force, he should give a warning if it is feasible,” the Court said. “If an officer directs a suspect to stop, to show his hands or the like, the suspect’s continued movement likely will raise in the officer’s mind objectively grave and serious suspicions about the suspect’s intentions.” Only then can an officer “reasonably expect the worst,” the Court explained.

Applying the governing legal principles to the facts in this case, the Fourth Circuit concluded the deputies “were not in any immediate danger and were not entitled to shoot Hensley,” and thus were not entitled to qualified immunity. The deputies gave no command for Hensley to stop, drop the gun, or raise his hands, the Court found. Because they gave no warning to Hensley, they had no reason to suspect that he posed a threat, especially since the gun he was holding was pointed at the ground, not at them (facts must be viewed in light most favorable to Hensley for purposes of summary judgment determination).

Accordingly, the Court ruled that the district court properly refused to grant the deputies summary judgment based on any immunities, allowing the case to proceed to trial. See: Hensley v. Price, 876 F.3d 573 (4th Cir. 2017). 

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Hensley v. Price



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