Civil Rights

4th Circuit revives suit against police in shooting death and says, ‘This has to stop’

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A federal appeals court has revived a lawsuit against police officers in the shooting death of a homeless black man who was stopped for failing to walk on the sidewalk.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Richmond, Virginia, ruled Tuesday in a suit brought by the estate of Wayne Jones, who was tased, kicked, place in a chokehold and killed as he lay on the ground with his knife beneath him.

A trial court had ruled that the officers in Martinsburg, West Virginia, had qualified immunity and tossed the case.

The 4th Circuit reversed, referencing shootings of black men in police custody. “This has to stop,” the appeals court said.

The appeals court described the allegations in the case.

Jones, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, had told an officer who asked whether he had a weapon that he did have “something.” He didn’t obey commands to put his hands on the police car and ran after two officers tased him and one of them hit him in the face.

More officers responded, and the group caught up to Jones and wrestled him to the ground. At least one officer kicked him. Jones was in a chokehold when officers realized that Jones had a knife in his hand. One of the officers was stabbed.

The five officers on the scene drew back and ordered Jones to drop his weapon. Jones lay motionless on the ground. The officers fired their weapons, killing Jones in a volley of 22 bullets. When officers searched the body, they found a knife tucked into his right sleeve.

Jones’ family sued for violations of the Fourth and 14th Amendments under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act and for failure to discipline and train police officers. The trial judge tossed the civil rights and failure-to-discipline claims. The 4th Circuit reinstated the civil rights claims.

In an opinion by Judge Henry Floyd, the 4th Circuit said the officers did not have qualified immunity. The doctrine shields police officers from liability when, based on clearly established law, they could reasonably think their actions were lawful.

The appeals court said qualified immunity did not protect the officers because it was clearly established that officers may not shoot a secured or incapacitated person. Jurors could reasonably find that Jones fit that description, the court said.

“By shooting an incapacitated, injured person who was not moving, and who was laying on his knife, the police officers crossed a ‘bright line’ and can be held liable,” the appeals court said.

Floyd concluded the opinion with references to police shootings of black men, which have roiled the nation.

“Wayne Jones was killed just over one year before the Ferguson, Missouri, shooting of Michael Brown would once again draw national scrutiny to police shootings of black people in the United States. Seven years later, we are asked to decide whether it was clearly established that five officers could not shoot a man 22 times as he lay motionless on the ground.

“Although we recognize that our police officers are often asked to make split-second decisions, we expect them to do so with respect for the dignity and worth of black lives. Before the ink dried on this opinion, the FBI opened an investigation into yet another death of a black man at the hands of police, this time George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“This has to stop. To award qualified immunity at the summary judgment stage in this case would signal absolute immunity for fear-based use of deadly force, which we cannot accept.” and the Washington Post had coverage of the opinion, Estate of Wayne A. Jones v. City of Martinsburg, West Virginia.

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