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Qualified Immunity Defense Rejected in Case Involving Police Shooting

On August 26, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a DeKalb County Police officer’s qualified immunity claim, clearing the way for the litigation against him to proceed to trial. In 2015, Officer Casey Benton conducted a traffic stop on a car in which Troy Robinson was a passenger. Robinson fled from the police on foot and attempted to scale an eight-foot cement wall to evade pursuit. During this climb, Benton fired his taser at Robinson, who ultimately fell and died.

Robinson’s family filed a section 1983 lawsuit against Benton and DeKalb County for Benton’s excessive use of force. The family claimed that Benton shot Robinson with his taser while Robinson was standing on top of the wall, which incapacitated him and caused his fall. Benton, however, maintained that he had deployed the taser while Robinson was still on the ground and that it had not even affected the man since one of the probes failed to connect. The officer then filed a motion for summary judgement, claiming that the doctrine of qualified immunity required the court to dismiss the case against him.

Qualified immunity is a legal principle that protects government officials from being sued as individuals for civil rights violations. First formalized in the U.S. Supreme Court case Pierson v. Ray, qualified immunity makes workers employed by the government “immune” from any such lawsuits unless the actions they took violated a legal right that was objectively “clearly established” at the time. This means that many actions for police brutality are never even allowed to go to trial before a jury —because it is very difficult for a person to show that a right was “clearly established.”

In Robinson’s case, however, the Eleventh Circuit found that the law was in fact clearly established that an officer cannot use deadly force to stop a fleeing person who is unarmed and not suspected of committing a violent crime. Reviewing the evidence from the hearing, the court held that it was possible for a jury to conclude that Benton had shot Robinson while he was on top of the wall, and that if they did, such a use of force would be “obviously unconstitutional.” The court additionally found that the Supreme Court case of Tennessee v. Garner was factually similar enough to Robinson’s case to clearly establish his rights.

Though their lawsuit has not been dismissed, Robinson’s family will still need to present their case at trial or work out a settlement agreement before they can receive payment or any other form of relief on their claims. Cases like these can be lucrative but are very complex to litigate. If you or someone you know has been harmed by police brutality, you need a lawyer with a proven track record of success in civil rights cases. Contact our team of experienced federal attorneys for more information.