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Court Overturns Qualified Immunity in Police Killing of Marine Corps Veteran Who Accidentally Activated ‘Life Aid’ Device

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit on May 29 refused to dismiss a slew of claims against a group of White Plains police officers for their role in the death of Kenneth Chamberlain Sr., a mentally ill African American man who was shot and killed in his own home after accidentally setting off his emergency medical alert system. The appellate panel overturned a district court’s decision to shield the officers from liability under the controversial qualified immunity doctrine, reinstating claims of unlawful entry and excessive force in the death of the 67-year-old Marine Corps veteran who stated “lucidly, repeatedly, and emphatically” to the officers at his door “that he was not in need of assistance.”

The deadly incident at the center of the case began in Nov. 2011 when Chamberlain accidentally activated his “Life Aid” device, triggering an ambulance and a squad car being sent to his apartment. Despite being warned that he was “emotionally disturbed,” police began loudly banging on Chamberlain’s door, causing him to intentionally activate his Life Aid system, thereby preserving his conversation with the company’s phone operator in an almost-verbatim transcript.

Chamberlain told the Life Aid operator he wanted to report “an emergency” that “the White Plains Police Department [is] banging on my door and I did not call them and I am not sick.” The operator called the police to cancel the dispatch, but the dispatcher told her “they’re gonna make entry anyway…They’re gonna open it anyway.” One of the officers on the scene could clearly be heard telling Chamberlain that his “medical alert went off accidentally.”

“Despite this insistence by Chamberlain and information from the Life Aid operator that Chamberlain was not in need of medical attention and that the Life Aid device had been triggered accidentally, the officers ‘continued relentlessly in their attempts to forcibly gain entry to the apartment,’” the court wrote. “Because Chamberlain continued to refuse to open his door, the officers radioed for tactical reinforcements. There were approximately twelve officers in the augmented police force when they attempted to gain entry. They were armed with heavy ‘tactical gear,’ including handguns, a beanbag shotgun, Taser, riot shield, and pepper spray.”

Using a Halligan tool to wrench the door opened a few inches, the court wrote that the “partial opening of the door was sufficient for the police to confirm visually that Chamberlain was not in need of medical attention and that Chamberlain, who had long lived alone, ‘was not [at the time the forced, armed entry began], a danger to himself or the officers.’”

Once the door was opened, Chamberlain began exhibiting delusions, hallucinations, and flashbacks to his time in military service, all the while expressing fear for his life to the Life Aid operator. Declaring he had a knife and asserting that he only intended to protect himself, Chamberlain began thrusting a knife at the opening in the door and begging the police to leave.

“When the door was fully open, from the hallway, the officers, in swift succession, tased Chamberlain (unsuccessfully), fired several beanbag shots at him (largely ineffectively), and fired two shots at him with a handgun. One of those bullets passed through Chamberlain’s lungs and ribs and severed his spine, killing him,” the court said. “After the shots were fired, the officers entered, grabbed Chamberlain’s feet, and dragged him out of the apartment.”

After Chamberlain’s son filed a lawsuit naming all seven officers involved in the incident as defendants, a federal district court judge found that several of the officers were entitled to qualified immunity.

Officers Anthony Carelli, Maurice Love, Steven Demchuk, Marek Markowski, Sergeants Stephen Fottrell and Keith Martin, and Lieutenant James Spencer were named as defendants. The Circuit Court determined that Kenneth Chamberlain Jr., the administrator’s Chamberlain Sr.’s estate, “pleaded a plausible claim for unlawful entry by defendants Carelli, Hart, Demchuk, Fottrell, and Martin.”

“The grant of summary judgment in favor of defendant Martin with respect to the excessive force claim and in favor of defendants Fottrell and Martin with respect to the supervisory liability claims should be reconsidered and is therefore vacated, and those claims are remanded to the district court,” the court ruled.

Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine initially created by the Supreme Court which has steadily developed to prevent citizens from holding government actors accountable for constitutional violations enshrined in the Civil Rights Act’s §1983.

The modern doctrine holds that qualified immunity “shields federal and state officials from money damages unless a plaintiff pleads facts showing (1) that the official violated a statutory or constitutional right, and (2) that the right was ‘clearly established’ at the time of the challenged conduct.”

However, in order for such a right to be “clearly established,” the particular conduct of the alleged violator must have previously been established to such an extent as to place the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate – a subjective, and often times absurdly high bar for plaintiffs to clear.

According to the Second Circuit, the defendants “do not clear this high bar,” as the court reasoned that the officers’ “warrantless entry into a private dwelling, absent exigent circumstances” was legally established as being unlawful.

“The officers were responding to a 911 call at a location that was the source of prior [emotionally disturbed person] calls. They could hear Chamberlain yelling things that indicated that he was in psychological distress, but they had no information suggesting he was in physical danger,” the court said. “Here, Appellant has plausibly alleged that the officers’ warrantless entry into Chamberlain’s home was not justified by exigent circumstances and was, therefore, a violation of his clearly established rights under the Fourth Amendment.”

“Since the officers’ qualified immunity defense is not clearly established by allegations in the Amended Complaint as augmented by the relevant recordings, the district court erred in applying it in the context of the Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss,” the court said.

Read the full ruling below.

Second Circuit QI Order by Law&Crime on Scribd

[image via CNN screengrab]

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Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.