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Fourth Circuit: No Qualified Immunity for Police Shooting Homeowner without Warning

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of qualified immunity to police who repeatedly shot a homeowner without warning.

Just after 11 p.m., on May 2, 2007, a 911 call reported "that an altercation was occurring at the Cooper property" in rural Leland, North Carolina. Dispatch relayed the call to officers, reporting that the disturbance sounded "like two males screaming at each other."

Brunswick County deputy sheriffs James Sheehan and Brian Carlisle arrived at Cooper's residence at about 11:30 p.m. Neither officer activated his lights or siren.

The officers parked at the edge of Cooper's property and approached his mobile home on foot. They heard what sounded like a heated argument inside Cooper's home, but they could not hear what was being said.

Sheehan tapped on the window with his flashlight to alert the occupants of the Officers' presence, but neither officer announced his presence or identified himself as a deputy sheriff.

In response to the sound at the window, Cooper looked out the back door and called for anyone in the yard to identify himself. The officers did not respond.

Cooper retrieved a shotgun and took two or three steps onto his darkened porch, with the muzzle pointed toward the ground. Reacting to the sight of the shotgun, the Officers opened fire without warning. They fired 11-14 rounds, hitting Cooper five or six times. Cooper suffered nonfatal gunshot wounds to the elbow, ankle, back, buttocks, and stomach.

Cooper brought federal suit against both officers and several other Defendants. The district court denied Sheehan and Carlisle qualified immunity on Cooper's Fourth Amendment excessive force claim. It also denied him public officer's immunity on his state law assault, battery, negligence, and gross negligence claims. See: Cooper v. Brunswick Cnty., 896 F.Supp.2d 432 (E.D.N.C. 2012). Defendants filed an interlocutory appeal.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed. "When the Officers fired on Cooper, he stood at the threshold of his home, holding the shotgun in one hand, with its muzzle pointed at the ground. He made no sudden moves. He made no threats. He ignored no commands," the court observed. "The Officers had no other information suggesting that Cooper might harm them. Thus, the facts fail to support the proposition that a reasonable officer would have had probable cause to feel threatened by Cooper's actions."

The Court found it important that "the Officers never identified themselves — even when asked by Cooper." Ultimately, the court held that "the district court properly denied, at the summary judgment stage, the Officers' invocation of qualified immunity from Cooper's § 1983 excessive force claims."

The court also affirmed the denial of public officers' immunity on Cooper's state law claims, concluding that the analysis "is functionally identical" to the qualified immunity analysis and the state law claims are subsumed within the excessive force claim. See: Cooper v. Sheehan, 735 F.3d 153 (4th Cir. 2013).

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Related legal case

Cooper v. Brunswick Cnty