Aug. 17, 2015 – The mother of a 22-year-old Wisconsin man from Walworth County can continue her federal case, which alleges that police used excessive force in violation of her son’s Fourth Amendment rights when an officer shot and killed him in his home.
A three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, in Brown v. Blanchard, No. 14-2808 (Aug. 13, 2015), upheld a district court’s decision to deny summary judgment despite the defendant officer’s qualified immunity claim.
The case was consolidated with a similar case from Indiana, Estate of Williams v. Indiana State Police Department, No. 14-2523, but in that case the panel ruled that officers had qualified immunity. In both cases, police killed men threatening suicide.
In Brown, the court rejected the officer’s qualified immunity argument because it is clearly established “that officers cannot resort as an initial matter to lethal force on a person who is merely passively resisting and has not presented any threat of harm to others,” and the facts were disputed as to whether the victim presented a threat.
Police are entitled to qualified immunity if they use excessive force, but only if it was “objectively unreasonable for the officer to believe the force was lawful.”
In 2012, friends received texts from 22-year-old John Brown which indicated he might attempt suicide. One friend informed Brown’s mother, who lived with Brown.
According to facts alleged, Nancy called police after she found John in his room with a knife and cuts on his wrists. She comforted Brown and tried to take the knife but he refused. He locked the door when she exited to call 911. One officer arrived and tried to talk with Brown through his bedroom door. Then Deputy Wayne Blanchard arrived.
Blanchard says he unholstered his gun and approached the bedroom door while the other officer, Chris Such, went outside to look in the bedroom window. Officer Such could see Brown at his computer, smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer.
Blanchard then kicked in the door. Such ran back into the home, a mobile home, and unlatched his Taser gun. They told Brown to show his hands. Both officers said Brown ignored those requests, stood up, stared at them blankly, and shut the door.
Blanchard says he kicked in the door again, pointed his gun at Brown, and ordered him to drop the knife. According to both officers, Brown began advancing towards them while raising the knife. Blanchard fired two shots at Brown, resulting in his death.
Brown’s mother – who filed a 42. U.S.C section 1983 claim alleging police used excessive force in violation of Brown’s right against unreasonable searches and seizures – says that her son never advanced upon the officers with the knife.
In district court, Ms. Brown survived summary judgment. And the three-judge appeals panel affirmed, accepting as true the facts that she alleged.
“Blanchard was faced with facts indicating that John posed a potential threat to himself, but there were no facts indicating that he was a threat to others,” wrote Judge Ilana Rovner, noting Blanchard’s argument that he shot Brown to stop him from approaching the officers while holding a knife in a threatening manner.
“Blanchard fails to acknowledge that the district court determined that there was a genuine dispute of fact as to that matter,” Judge Rovner explained, “and the mere possession of a knife is insufficient to warrant summary judgment.”