The federal appeals court in Atlanta has dismissed a case in which a Coffee County deputy fired a gunshot at a family’s dog but missed and struck a 10-year-old boy in the leg.
The court's ruling said Deputy Michael Vickers, who fired the shot, was immune from liability. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' 2-1 decision included a pointed dissent by a judge who said civil rights claims brought by the boy's mother should proceed to trial.
The incident occurred on July 10, 2014, when several officers were trying to apprehend a criminal suspect, Christopher Barnett, who’d robbed a South Georgia convenience store and shot a police officer earlier in the day. Barnett was found after he wandered onto Amy Corbitt’s property, where she and six children — including her 10-year-old son — were out in the front yard.
Officers detained Barnett and ordered everyone to get on the ground, the lawsuit said.
This included four of the children who each had an officer shoving the barrel of a loaded gun into their back, the suit said. In a court filing, lawyers representing Vickers and the county denied this allegation.
At one point, Vickers saw the Corbitts’ dog, a pit bull named Bruce, in the yard. He fired a shot but missed, even though no one appeared to be threatened by Bruce’s presence, the lawsuit said.
Bruce retreated into the Corbitts’ home but reappeared about 10 seconds later. Vickers fired once again and missed again, but this time his errant shot landed in the back of Corbitts’ 10-year-old son’s knee, according to court records.
In 2016, Corbitt and four parents of other children at the scene filed a civil rights lawsuit against Vickers and the county. Corbitt sought $2 million in damages, plus compensation for her son’s pain and suffering. The other four parents each sought $500,000 in damages.
On July 10, the 11th Circuit dismissed the parents' lawsuit under the doctrine of qualified immunity. Under this legal principle, government officials may not be held liable if there was no clearly established law at the time that said their conduct violated a constitutional right.
Specifically, the court said there has been no prior ruling that found a constitutional violation when a subdued bystander “is accidentally harmed as an unintended consequence of an officer’s intentional shot at something else entirely,” Senior Judge Lanier Anderson wrote for the 2-1 majority.
This is also not a case where the alleged conduct so obviously violates the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable seizures, said Anderson, who was joined by Judge Elizabeth Branch.
“To find otherwise would require us to conclude that no reasonable officer would have fired his gun at the dog under the circumstances,” the ruling said. “This we are unable to do.”
Anderson added: “With the benefit of hindsight, we do not doubt Vickers could have acted more carefully; the firing of a deadly weapon at a dog located close enough to a prone child that the child is struck by a trained officer’s errant shot hardly qualifies as conduct we wish to see repeated.”
In dissent, Judge Charles Wilson strongly disagreed. The lawsuit, he noted, said Vickers was only a foot and a half away from the 10-year-old and only a few feet from other children when he shot at the dog.
“No reasonable officer would engage in such recklessness and no reasonable officer would think such recklessness was lawful,” Wilson said.
On Sunday, Ashleigh Madison, the Corbitts’ lawyer, said the family will appeal the 11th Circuit’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Given the tragic facts of our case, we believe that our case is a good candidate for Supreme Court review,” she said. “We look forward to achieving justice for the Corbitt family.”
Vickers was not charged for the accidental shooting. Barnett, the suspect, was later convicted of armed robbery and aggravated assault on a police officer. He is serving a 20-year sentence.
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Credit: Ben Hendren for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution