The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on Tuesday denied the shield of qualified immunity to West Virginia cops involved in the March 2013 shooting of 50-year-old Wayne A. Jones.
The opinion from Circuit Judge Henry Franklin Floyd, immediately recognized by some as “extraordinary,” began by recounting harrowing facts about the night Jones was shot and killed by police in Martinsburg:
Around 11:30 p.m. on March 13, 2013, Officer Paul Lehman of the Martinsburg Police Department (MPD) was on patrol when he spotted Jones walking in the road, instead of on the sidewalk, near downtown Martinsburg, West Virginia. A state law and a city ordinance both require that pedestrians use sidewalks when available. Jones was a 50-year-old black man and weighed 162 pounds. He was experiencing homelessness and had been diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Lehman followed Jones in his marked police car for one minute. Lehman then parked his car near Jones, exited the vehicle, and asked Jones why he was walking in the street. Lehman asked Jones for identification; Jones replied that he did not have any identification. Lehman then asked to search him for weapons. Jones first asked, “What’s a weapon?” When Lehman explained that this meant “anything—guns, knives, clubs,” Jones acknowledged that he did have “something.” The encounter quickly escalated. Lehman called the MPD for backup and began to demand that Jones put his hands on the police car. Jones did not comply and instead tried to move away from Lehman. Lehman began to repeatedly shout, “Put your hands on the car.” Jones responded, “What are you trying to do?”; “What do you want?”; and “What did I do to you?” Lehman never answered Jones’s questions. Lehman then pulled out his taser and discharged it on Jones.
Having learned of the knife, the officers simultaneously drew back approximately five feet. As they moved back, Jones’s left arm dropped lifelessly. Jones was motionless on the ground, laying “with his right side on the ground” and his “right elbow on the ground.” All five officers drew their firearms and formed a semi-circle around the recumbent Jones, who was between the officers and the bookstore wall. The officers ordered Jones to drop the weapon. Jones remained motionless and did not verbally respond. Lehman reported that Jones “did not make any overt acts with the knife towards the officers.” On the night of the incident, Staub similarly reported that as the officers stepped back, Jones “still had the f**king knife in his hand and he wasn’t f**king doing nothing.” Seconds later, the five officers fired a total of 22 rounds at Jones, causing 23 wounds, and killing him where he lay on the sidewalk. Neely fired the first shot, but the next rounds immediately followed. Most of the bullets entered Jones’s back and buttocks. Jones died shortly before midnight.
Jones, who was black, was tased multiple times at the scene. The videos embedded above and below were recorded from different angles, but both show the moments multiple officers shot at Jones 22 times. It happened roughly one minute and 30 seconds into the videos. Viewer discretion is advised.
Wayne Jones’s estate filed suit against the City of Martinsburg and five police officers: Pfc. Erik Herb, Pfc. Daniel North, Ptlm. William Staubs, Ptlm. Paul Lehman, and Pfc. Eric Neely. A years-long litigation road led to Tuesday, when the Circuit Court ruled that the district court “erred by holding that the officers are protected by qualified immunity” because, “[i]n 2013, it was clearly established that law enforcement may not constitutionally use force against a secured, incapacitated person—let alone use deadly force against that person.”
In short, Jones had a knife, but he was secured and incapacitated when the officers opened fire. Per the Court:
In 2013, Wayne Jones, a black man experiencing homelessness, was stopped by law enforcement in Martinsburg, West Virginia for walking alongside, rather than on, the sidewalk. By the end of this encounter, Jones would be dead. Armed only with a knife tucked into his sleeve, he was tased four times, hit in the brachial plexus, kicked, and placed in a choke hold. In his final moments, he lay on the ground between a stone wall and a wall of five police officers, who collectively fired 22 bullets. Jones’s Estate sued under 18 U.S.C. § 1983, bringing a Fourth Amendment claim against the officers and a Monell claim against the City of Martinsburg. In protracted litigation, the Estate has been kicked out of district court three times. Most recently, the district court granted summary judgment to the defendants on both claims, holding that the officers are protected by qualified immunity and that the City cannot be liable under a Monell theory for failing to train those officers. Although we agree that the City is insulated from Monell liability premised on one incident of excessive force, we reverse the grant of summary judgment to the officers on qualified immunity grounds, as a reasonable jury could find that Jones was both secured and incapacitated in the final moments before his death.
Circuit Judge Floyd was appointed to the Fourth Circuit by then-President Barack Obama. Prior to that, George W. Bush appointed Floyd to the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina. Chief Judge Robert L. Gregory and Circuit Judge Stephanie Thacker joined Floyd’s opinion.
Qualified immunity is a controversial legal doctrine that shields government officials from civil liability for actions performed within their official capacity — unless those actions violate “clearly established” constitutional rights. The killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis cops has drawn even more attention to the subject of qualified immunity and sparked widespread calls for police reforms more broadly.
At the very end of his opinion, Circuit Judge Floyd referenced the George Floyd case and the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown. Judge Floyd said that “this has to stop.” He refused to send the signal that it is acceptable for police to have “absolute immunity for fear-based use of deadly force” against African Americans:
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. The district court’s grant of summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds is reversed, and the dismissal of that claim is hereby vacated.
You can read the full opinion below:
[Image via YouTube screengrab]
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