How Immunity Helps Cops Win Excessive-Force Suits

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As Andrew Scott and his girlfriend, Miranda Mauck sat in their Florida apartment at 1:30 a.m., they were startled by a loud knock at the door. We “looked at each other and jumped up real fast,” Mauck said. Scott grabbed the 9mm semi-automatic pistol he kept at home, opened the the door with his right hand, the gun in his left. Six shots rang out. Four sheriff’s deputies “didn’t even say anything, they just started shooting,” Mauck said. Three bullets killed Scott, 26. Lake County Sheriff’s Deputy Richard Sylvester and fellow officers had made a fatal error. They had the wrong place. They had trailed a suspect in an alleged assault to Scott’s apartment complex northwest of Orlando. The suspect, who officers believed was armed, had parked his motorcycle near Scott’s apartment. Despite that mistake, Sylvester was not disciplined or criminally charged in the 2012 killing.

Mauck and Scott’s parents sued Sylvester and the sheriff’s office, but Judge Anne Conway let Sylvester off the hook, Reuters reports. Her main reason: Scott’s gun. When the conflict of Americans’ cherished gun rights against formidable legal protections for police accused of excessive force plays out in court, cops often win. Scott had a right to use a gun for self-defense at home, but that was trumped by Sylvester’s claim he was protected by qualified immunity, a controversial legal doctrine the Supreme Court created 50 years ago to shield police and other officials from civil liability for actions taken on the job. Court rulings meant, in effect, that Scott gave up his Fourth Amendment rights when he exercised his Second Amendment rights. Reuters has reported that federal appeals courts have been granting qualified immunity at an increasing rate to cops sued for excessive force — even when courts determine that police actually did use excessive force.

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