A panel of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last Thursday that a police officer will not face civil penalties for shooting and killing an innocent man because he was holding a handgun when the officer knocked on his door.
The full circuit court declined to review the case, meaning the panel’s decision stands.
As Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern notes in an excellent analysis of the case, the Eleventh Circuit Court’s ruling followed a Fourth Circuit Court ruling from January that effectively held that the exercise of Second Amendment rights diminishes Fourth Amendment rights.
In other words, possessing a handgun in your own home could subject you to police actions that would not otherwise be permissible under the Fourth Amendment.
The incident in question took place late one night in 2012. Andrew Scott and his girlfriend were playing video games in their Florida home when they heard loud banging at their door. No one yelled or called to them. Scott, unsure why someone would knock on his door without identifying themselves, retrieved his legally-owned handgun and went to investigate.
The facts of the case get a bit fuzzy at this point. Deputy Richard Sylvester, the police officer who was banging on the door, says that Scott pointed a handgun directly at his face. Scott’s attorney presented evidence at the trial that indicated his client actually retreated, keeping the gun down the whole time.
In either case, Sylvester, without identifying himself as a police officer, fired six shots, three of which hit and killed Scott.
Sylvester was at Scott’s home looking for another person suspected of armed assault and battery. He had reason to suspect the man answering the door might be dangerous, and, if his account is true, had even better reason to believe his life might be in danger.
But, as David French at the National Review points out, the Eleventh Circuit Court was required in this case to assume that Scott’s version of events was true. The court ruled, in other words, that a police officer can kill a person in his own home simply for holding a gun at his side.
They justified their decision using a legal principle called “qualified immunity.” Essentially, qualified immunity bars individuals from suing the government for violating their rights unless those rights were “clearly established.” This requires the plaintiff’s lawyers to find another case with almost identical facts in which the court ruled in the plaintiff’s favor.
Scott’s attorney could not find a similar case and could therefore not prove his client’s rights were “clearly established.”
In her dissent, Judge Beverly Martin pointed out the huge, Second-Amendment-sized holes in the court’s argument. Sylvester’s decision to shoot Scott for holding a handgun violates his “clearly established” right under the Second Amendment.
The “conclusion that deadly force was reasonable here,” Martin noted, “plainly infringes on the Second Amendment right to ‘keep and bear arms’”:
If Mr. Scott was subject to being shot and killed, simply because (as the District Court put it) he made the “fateful decision” to answer a late-night disturbance at the door to his house, and did so while holding his firearm pointed safely at the ground, then the Second Amendment (and Heller) had little effect.
Both French and Stern call upon the Supreme Court to reverse the Fourth and Eleventh Circuit Court rulings, which, if Judge Neil Gorsuch is confirmed this week, could happen in the near future.