Qualified immunity is generally the first defense invoked by a police officer when faced with a lawsuit alleging that he or she intentionally violated the constitutional rights of an individual. The modern standard for this defense was formulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1982 in the case of Harlow v. Fitzgerald.
In Fitzgerald, the Court explained that “government officials performing discretionary functions generally are shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”
When a law enforcement officer invokes this defense, the court hearing the case must engage in a two-step analysis: 1) did the officer’s conduct violate a constitutional right; and 2) if so, was the right clearly established at the time of the violation.
In 2014, the Supreme Court handed down two decisions that reinforced the qualified immunity defense and made it more difficult for citizens to sue the police for alleged misconduct. In Plumhoff v. Rickard, the court in a 7-2 decision held that the police did not violate the Fourth Amendment when they shot and killed the driver of a fleeing vehicle to end a dangerous car chase; and in Wood v. Moss a unanimous court allowed a qualified immunity defense for two Secret Service agents who moved anti-George W. Bush protesters a block further than pro-Bush supporters.
The Killing of Eurie Stamps
This brings us to the tragic case of an innocent, elderly, African-American man, Eurie Stamps, Sr., who was shot and killed on January 5, 2011 by a SWAT team officer with the Framingham, Massachusetts police department.
It was sometime after midnight when eleven SWAT team officers executed a search warrant of a first floor apartment in which Eurie, his wife, and stepson lived. The search warrant was issued based on a probable cause showing by the police that two men were selling crack cocaine out of the apartment.
A February 5, 2016 decision by the First Circuit Court of Appeals reported that the Framingham Police Department suspected these two men and a third man of “having ties to Boston gangs and criminal histories collectively including armed robbery, armed assault, assault with a dangerous weapon, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, theft of a firearm, and cocaine-related charges.”
The warrant authorized the SWAT team to conduct a “nighttime entry” for drugs and related paraphernalia, but, as pointed out by the First Circuit, “did not authorize unannounced entry or command search of any person found who might have such property in his possession.”
SWAT Knew He Posed No Threat
Eurie was 68 years old. SWAT team officers were briefed that he would likely be in the apartment and that he had a criminal record that consisted only of “motor vehicle arrests/charges.” The team was also told that Eurie had no history of violent crime, owning or possessing a weapon, and that he “posed no known threat” to the SWAT team officers—one of whom was an officer named Paul Duncan.
The midnight raid began when SWAT officers announced their presence followed shortly by the use of a flash grenade. One of the drug suspects was quickly apprehended outside the apartment just as Duncan and other officers “breached the apartment with a battering ram.” Once inside the apartment, Duncan switched his loaded M-4 rifle from “safe” to “semi-automatic.”
Compliant, Lying on Stomach, Hands Above Head
Two officers, Timothy O’Toole and Michael Sheehan, encountered Eurie first. He was in a hallway that separated the kitchen from a bathroom and a rear bedroom. The officers instructed the elderly man to “get down.” He complied, lying down on his stomach with his hands raised near his head. He posed no threat. In fact, officers stepped over him as they made their way throughout the apartment.
A SWAT sergeant ordered Duncan to assist O’Toole and Sheehan as a “trailer.” These two officers then left to continue the search of the apartment while Duncan “assumed control” of Eurie.
Shot in the Head
It can reasonably be assumed that the elderly gentleman was terrified. He lay prostrate on the hallway floor while Duncan pointed the rifle at his head. While the search continued, Duncan placed his finger on the trigger. Why he took this aggressive maneuver is not known. Eurie posed absolutely no threat. He was unarmed, flat on his stomach, and had readily complied with all the orders given to him. The First Circuit explained what happened next:
“ … At some point, Duncan unintentionally pulled the trigger of his rifle and shot Stamps. The shot was an accident; Duncan had no intention of shooting Stamps. The bullet pierced Stamps’ head, neck, and chest. Stamps was taken by ambulance to a hospital and pronounced dead. Duncan was later dismissed from the SWAT team for failing to abide by police training and protocols.”
Civil Rights Lawsuit
The Stamps estate sued the Town of Framingham and Duncan. The civil rights lawsuit charged that Duncan violated Eurie’s Fourth Amendment right against “unreasonable seizure” when the officer pointed a loaded semi-automatic weapon at Eurie’s head with the safety off and his finger on the trigger.
Duncan’s defense team automatically filed a motion for summary judgment raising the qualified immunity defense on two grounds: 1) the shooting was an accident; and 2) the shooting was not a violation of clearly established law. The district court denied the motion, finding that “a reasonable jury could find Duncan had violated Stamps’ Fourth Amendment rights and that the law was sufficiently clearly established to put Duncan on notice that pointing a loaded firearm at the head of an innocent and compliant person, with the safety off and a finger on the trigger is not constitutionally permissible.”
The First Circuit upheld the district court’s ruling, finding that Duncan had violated three rules of the Framingham Police Department’s training and general firearms training. The appeals court outlined these three rules:
“ … First, accepting for purposes of this appeal that he placed his finger on the trigger, Duncan concedes that he violated his training and Framingham Police Department protocol by doing so. According to Framingham Police Department policy in place at the time, officers were required to ‘keep their finger[s] outside of the trigger guard until ready to engage and fire on a target.’ Framingham police officers, including Duncan, were trained on this policy.
“Second, Duncan deviated from ‘proper, reasonable, established, and accepted police practices and procedures’ and ‘his training by having his weapon’ off-safe at all times when he encountered Mr. Stamps. The training provided to Officer Duncan by the [Framingham Police Department] required that his weapon be ‘on safe’ unless he perceived Mr. Stamps as a threat or was actively clearing a room. We accept for the purpose of this appeal that neither was the case here.
“Third, Duncan additionally violated ‘basic firearm safety procedures’ and ‘departmental guidelines’ by ‘failing to keep the weapon’s muzzle pointed in a safe direction at all times.’”
This case will go to trial. Unless the Town of Framingham settles out of court (which is now more than likely), a jury will decide how much damages the Stamps estate is due. This case is much more than a “oops” moment. It is about a police officer who flagrantly violated his training and departmental protocols that resulted in the tragic death of an innocent man.
We believe the Framingham Police Department should have done more than just dismissing Duncan from the SWAT team. He should have been fired from the force. He carries a deadly weapon each and every day. He should not have the opportunity to “accidentally” kill someone else. His is a job where you should only get one fatal mistake. There should be no opportunity for a second.