Criminal Justice

Qualified immunity doesn't protect officer who killed man threatening only himself, Sotomayor says

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U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented Monday, when the high court declined to consider whether qualified immunity should protect a police officer who fatally shot a man holding a gun to his own temple.

Sotomayor dissented from the cert denial in an Oct. 4 opinion.

Publications with coverage include Reuters, the Hill and Law & Crime.

Sotomayor said the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Philadelphia erred when it held that qualified immunity protects the New Jersey state trooper who shot and killed Willie Gibbons in May 2011. The officer, Noah Bartelt, was facing a civil rights lawsuit by Gibbons’ family.

The 3rd Circuit had reasoned that Gibbons posed a danger because he had been within range to shoot Bartelt.

But the officer knew that Gibbons was mentally ill, Gibbons never threatened the officer, and “the encounter was over within seconds,” Sotomayor said.

A federal judge had refused to grant qualified immunity to the officer on summary judgment, citing disputed facts. They included whether Gibbons’ right arm was by his side or raised in surrender, whether the officer clearly asked Gibbons to drop the gun, and whether the officer gave Gibbons a chance to comply.

Sotomayor said the 3rd Circuit improperly resolved factual disputes in the officer’s favor and overlooked binding precedent to conclude that the officer did not violate a clearly established constitutional right.

Qualified immunity “does not protect an officer who inflicts deadly force on a person who is only a threat to himself,” Sotomayor wrote.

Sotomayor said she would grant the cert petition and summarily reverse the 3rd Circuit. The case is James v. Bartelt.

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