Criminal Justice

4th Circuit says US can be sued over background check failures in church shooting

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A federal appeals court has ruled that the federal government can be sued for failing to uncover information about the Charleston, South Carolina, church shooter during a background check that would have barred him from being able to buy a gun from a licensed dealer before the mass shooting.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Richmond, Virginia, ruled for survivors and family members of the shooting victims in a decision Friday, report BuzzFeed News, Law360 and Courthouse News Service.

Nine black worshippers were killed in the June 2015 shooting at a church in Charleston. White supremacist Dylann Roof was convicted in December 2016 by jurors who deliberated less than two hours. He was sentenced to death the next month.

Roof had bought a Glock pistol two months before the shooting. The reviewer conducting the background check before the purchase failed to uncover relevant information about a narcotics arrest.

The review was run by the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Although the narcotics arrest would not have prevented Roof from buying a gun, his admission to police that he possessed a controlled substance would have disqualified him. The government reviewer contacted the wrong police department for records of Roof’s arrest because of a misstatement in a government database.

The reviewer didn’t uncover the information about Roof’s admission before expiration of a three-day waiting period. Roof bought the gun.

Dylann Roof Dylann Roof. Photo from the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office.

A federal judge in South Carolina had found that the government had immunity from suit and tossed 16 lawsuits. The judge said the government was immune from liability under the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act and under a discretionary function exception to the Federal Tort Claims Act.

The 4th Circuit reversed in a majority opinion by Chief Judge Roger Gregory.

If the government reviewer had been using discretion and decided against obtaining the arrest report, the government would be immune, the 4th Circuit said. But the examiner instead was required to get the report from the arresting agency under internal operating procedures that remove any discretion from reviewers. “The government can claim no immunity in these circumstances,” the 4th Circuit said.

The appeals court also said the Brady law gives immunity to local governments and to individual state and federal employees but not the federal government. “The statutory text is clear: federal employees, but not the federal government, enjoy immunity from suit,” the appeals court said.

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