Court Swats Away Immunity for Obviously Reckless Police Behavior

On Friday, a federal appellate court issued an opinion in Stamps v. Town of Framingham, holding that a SWAT team officer who points and accidentally fires a loaded semi-automatic weapon at a subdued 68-year-old grandfather is not immune from facing a lawsuit for using excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Eurie Stamps was the stepfather of Joseph Bushfan, whom the police suspected of dealing crack. Effectuating a search warrant on Stamps’s apartment, the SWAT team raided the apartment at midnight on January 5, 2011.  Stamps—whose presence the SWAT team was aware of and who was not suspected of any wrongdoing—lay prostrate and motionless on the ground with his hands out while Officer Duncan guarded him. During the time that Duncan was guarding him, Duncan moved his finger to the trigger and accidentally fired, killing Stamps.

The real story is how this seemingly obvious outcome—that juries should be able to decide whether officers who finger the trigger of loaded guns pointed at non-threatening individuals use excessive force—even became an issue. At the district court, Officer Paul Duncan claimed that his actions aren’t subject to scrutiny because of a doctrine entitled qualified immunity. As I wrote in September:

Under the doctrine of “qualified immunity,” government officials—including police officers—are immune from suit if their actions don’t violate a “clearly established” constitutional right. The crux of Duncan’s argument is that when his weapon discharged, he became immune from suit even if pointing an assault rifle at Stamps was an unconstitutional act by itself—because there’s no clearly established right against accidental death.

The district court rightly rejected that argument, which Cato categorized as both “dangerous and bizarre” in our brief. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit was plain in its rejection as well: “The defendants’ proposed rule has the perverse effect of immunizing risky behavior only when the foreseeable harm of that behavior comes to pass.” It seems that the court agreed with Cato’s position that “foreseeable accidents don’t remove liability from the harming actor . . . immunizing an officer from liability for the foreseeable result of his intentional actions [is improper].” Indeed, the court noted the “widespread agreement” of other federal courts in rejecting exactly that sort of argument.

Thus, because Officer Duncan’s actions were not immunized, the case goes back to the jury to determine whether he is liable for his actions, and what the damages should be. (In all likelihood, Duncan will now settle the case because it’s hard to imagine that a jury won’t rule for Stamps’s family here.)

This decision comes at a time when SWAT raids across the country creates pressing issues on the proper use of government force in effectuating criminal arrests. In a militarization case with nearly identical facts, Kane v. Lewis, Cato filed a brief noting that “SWAT team deployments have increased more than 1,400% since the 1980s … .  SWAT teams and tactical units were originally created to address high-risk situations, such as terrorist attacks and hostage crises. Today, however, these extreme situations account for only a small fraction of SWAT deployments; they’re used primarily to serve low-level drug-search warrants.”

Federal courts should continue to rein in the use of militarized SWAT teams – and indeed government officials abusing their powers in all contexts – improving respect for law enforcement officers as well as protecting arrestees and innocent bystanders.