The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear a family's bid to revive a lawsuit against a New Jersey state trooper who fatally shot a mentally ill man who was pointing a gun at his own head in a case involving a legal defense that often protects officers from accusations of excessive force.
The court rejected an appeal led by the mother of Willie Gibbons of a lower court decision to grant New Jersey State Trooper Noah Bartelt "qualified immunity" after he twice shot Gibbons during a roadside encounter in 2011. Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented from the decision to deny the appeal.
In ruling in favor of Bartelt in 2020, the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that even though Gibbons, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, had been pointing the gun at himself, he had been "within range to shoot" the officer.
The qualified immunity defense protects police and other government officials from civil litigation in certain circumstances, permitting lawsuits only when an individual's "clearly established" statutory or constitutional rights have been violated.
In her dissent, Sotomayor said qualified immunity should protect officers only when they act reasonably.
"It does not protect an officer who inflicts deadly force on a person who is only a threat to himself," Sotomayor wrote.
Reuters in 2020 published an investigation https://www.reuters.com/investigates/section/usa-police-immunity that revealed how qualified immunity, with the Supreme Court's continual refinements, has made it easier for police officers to kill or injure civilians with impunity.
Law enforcement professionals and some U.S. conservatives have argued that qualified immunity is essential for police to make quick decisions in dangerous situations without fear of lawsuits. Critics of the legal principle have said that it has been used to shield from accountability officers who have clearly engaged in misconduct.
Police had been looking for Gibbons after he showed up at his girlfriend Angel Stephens' house in Bridgeton, New Jersey in violation of a temporary restraining order that she had obtained after the couple argued the previous day.
Bartelt came across Gibbons walking along a road. Gibbons, who was Black, pointed a gun at his own head and refused to drop it, according to court papers. Bartelt then shot Gibbons twice in the chest before his service weapon jammed. Gibbons died in a hospital a few hours later.
The family filed a civil rights lawsuit against Bartelt, other officers, the state and state police seeking monetary damages. A federal judge handling the lawsuit denied Bartelt qualified immunity, but a three-judge panel of the 3rd Circuit reversed that ruling.
Police use of force has been closely scrutinized following a series of incidents in recent years including the 2020 death of a Black man named George Floyd after a white Minneapolis officer knelt on his neck.
President Joe Biden and his fellow Democrats have pursued legislation in Congress to tighten police practices following Floyd's death, but talks with Republicans collapsed. A major point of disagreement has been qualified immunity, which Democrats have sought to rein in. The House of Representatives has passed Democratic-backed legislation that would eliminate the qualified immunity defense for law enforcement.
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