Cooper v. Sheehan, No. 13-1071

Decided: November 7, 2013

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s determination that two police officers were not entitled to qualified immunity or public officers’ immunity, respectively, in response to the plaintiff’s federal and state claims for excessive use of force.

On May 7, 2007 two cousins spent the day performing home repairs for a nearby relative. Later that evening, the cousins spent time sitting outside the North Carolina home of the plaintiff, George Cooper, talking, drinking, smoking marijuana laced with cocaine, and consuming a pint of brandy. Around 11:00 p.m., a neighbor called the police, claiming to hear screams coming from Cooper’s property. Two police officers, Carlisle and Sheehan (collectively “Officers”) responded to the call and arrived at around 11:30 that evening. The officers heard screaming coming from the property. Officer Sheehan then approached the door of Cooper’s mobile home and tapped on the window with his flashlight. Neither officer announced his presence or identified himself as a police officer. The Officers then heard obscenities coming from inside the home. Eventually, Cooper emerged from the mobile home’s rear door and called out for anyone on the property to identify himself. When neither officer responded, Cooper reentered his home and retrieved his shotgun. Cooper then took a couple of steps out onto the porch of the mobile home, with the butt of his shotgun in hand and the muzzle pointed toward the ground. Upon seeing the shotgun, the Officers drew their guns and fired on Cooper without warning. Cooper suffered multiple gunshot wounds, but ultimately recovered. In 2010, Cooper filed a lawsuit against the Officers for excessive force under § 1983 and similar state law claims. The Officers moved for summary judgment on the grounds of qualified immunity and public officer’s immunity from the plaintiff’s federal and state claims, respectively. The district court denied the motion. The Officers appealed.

The Fourth Circuit first held that the district court correctly denied the Officers’ qualified immunity claim in response to the plaintiff’s § 1983 claim for the excessive use of force. The Fourth Circuit explained that a police office is not entitled to qualified immunity when: (1) a constitutional violation occurred, and (2) the right violated was clearly established. The court explained that a police officer violates a person’s constitutional rights through the excessive use of force when an officer’s actions are unreasonable “from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene.” Furthermore, an officer is only justified to use deadly force when, “based on a reasonable assessment, the officer or another person is threatened with [a] weapon.” First, the Officers argued that they did not violate Cooper’s constitutional rights because they were justified in the use of deadly force because Cooper brandished his shotgun in “plain view.” The Fourth Circuit disagreed, finding that although Cooper had a shotgun, the threat from the gun did not justify the use of deadly force. The court emphasized that the muzzle remained pointed at the ground. In addition, Cooper made no sudden moves or threats that would justify a reasonable officer to feel threatened by Cooper’s actions. Moreover, the Officers never identified themselves, which had they done so, may have led to the reasonable assumption that “a man who greets law enforcement with a firearm is likely to pose a deadly threat.” Secondly, the court found that “the right to be free from deadly force when posing not threat” was clearly established at the time of the incident. Thus, the Fourth Circuit denied the Officer’s qualified immunity defense to Cooper’s § 1983 claim for the excessive use of force.

Similarly, the Fourth Circuit determined that the Officers were not entitled to public officers’ immunity in response to Cooper’s state tort claims. In North Carolina, a public officer is not entitled to immunity when he acts in a manner that a man of reasonable intelligence would know to be contrary to his duty. The Fourth Circuit determined that a North Carolina police officer could only use deadly force when reasonably necessary to defend against “the use or imminent use of deadly physical force.” The court determined that the test for public officers’ immunity was the functional equivalent of the test for qualified immunity in this case. Thus, the Fourth Circuit similarly denied the Officers’ state public officer’s immunity claim.

Full Opinion

– Wesley B. Lambert

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