Cop Who Accidentally Shot Bystanders Gets Qualified Immunity

By Robyn Hagan Cain on October 12, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Joann Cooper and her two-year-old son, Daniel, were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Both were seriously injured when an armed bank robber attempted to elude the police by attempting to steal the car in which they were riding. Rather than allow the armed bank robber to escape with hostages, the officers on the scene fired their weapons at the suspect until he was neutralized.

Unfortunately, Cooper and her son were both hit by bullets intended for the bank robber. They later sued the Jacksonville Sheriff's Department and the individual officers.

Officer Ryan Black was one of the officers on the scene. In total, Officer Black, who continued to fire his weapon until the suspect was neutralized, fired 24 shots--four times as many shots as the officer who fired the second most bullets. While a district court found that Black was not entitled to qualified immunity for his actions stemming from the shootout, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reached a different conclusion.

When faced with a question of qualified immunity, the Eleventh Circuit conducts a two-step analysis to determine whether the plaintiffs carried their burden of "establishing both that the defendant committed a constitutional violation and that the law governing the circumstances was already clearly established at the time of the violation."

Here, the court concluded that even if Officer Black committed a constitutional violation, the plaintiffs had not provided the court with cases suggesting that Black's alleged conduct violated the Fourth or Fourteenth Amendments. Thus, they failed to carry their burden of proof.

The Eleventh Circuit noted:

Once the car started moving forward, Officer Black was faced with the choice of either allowing the suspect to escape with multiple hostages and perhaps leading police on a high speed chase through the busy streets of Jacksonville or ensuring that the suspect could not leave the Wendy's parking lot. We cannot say that it is clearly established he made the wrong choice and committed a constitutional violation. Because "preexisting law [did not] provide [Black] with fair notice that" firing 24 shots was unreasonable in these circumstances, he is entitled to qualified immunity.

Do you agree with the court, or does this holding just promote the "shoot the hostage" line of reasoning from Keanu Reeves/Dennis Hopper classic, Speed?

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