Eleventh Circuit Rules Officer Who Accidently Shot Surrendering Teen Immune from Liability
The Atlanta federal court of appeals has ruled that a Fulton County police officer who accidentally shot an unarmed African-American teenager in the back as the boy was surrendering and kneeling on the ground is immune from civil liability under Georgia law. The court reversed the U.S. District Court ruling that would have allowed the case to proceed to trial based on a state law negligence claim against the officer.
Although this case might seem superficially like the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Mo., the situations are very different because no one disputes the shooting was accidental. However, the result might be equally troubling because the appellate court has determined that the officer is not liable for the teenager’s significant brain injury, which has necessitated over a million dollars in medical expenses.
The incident occurred when the teenage shooting victim jumped out of a vehicle while a Fulton County police officer attempted to detain the driver of the vehicle. The sixteen-year-old victim was located in a wooded areas by a second officer, Corporal Benjamin Griggs. The officer “kick pushed” the teen, who was on his knees surrendering with his hands behind his head, to force the teen to the ground. The officer’s gun accidently discharged during this act because the officer had his finger on the trigger, which runs counter to police department training.
The appellate opinion observed that the officer was exercising discretion in dark conditions during which at least one suspect was violent and uncooperative. In determining that liability should not be imposed on the officer in the performance of his duties, the court reasoned that the officer’s actions in leading to the shooting were the product of the officer exercising discretion in the course of his responsibilities as opposed to a definitive duty that he maliciously or negligently failed to perform.
The attorney for the teenager argued that the court should have focused on the accidental shooting and the violation of the police department’s trigger policy. Nonetheless, the court observed that department polices makes it necessary for officers to weigh the circumstances and exercise personal judgment and experience to determine the applicable policy. The court also observed that the Supreme Court of Georgia had previously rejected claims that an officer’s non-compliance with department policy or state law negated liability of an officer who otherwise was engaged in a discretionary act.
Under prior decisions by the Court of Appeals of Georgia, the immunity of police officers has been found to bar claims of liability against the officer in shootings of suspects where the plaintiff failed to show malice on the part of the officer. See Campbell v. Goode, 2010 WL 1172949 (Ga.App. Mar. 29, 2010). In articulating the legal reasoning behind outcomes like this one, the Campbell court indicated that a police officer can be liable for discretionary acts only if they are performed with malice under Georgia law. Further, malice requires a deliberate intention to do wrong or cause harm.
If you are injured by a government employee, issues of sovereign immunity must be anticipated. Notwithstanding the simplified discussion above, this is an extremely complex and fact specific issue, so you should seek immediate legal advice.
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