Federal Appeals Court revives lawsuit against Charlotte over fatal police shooting

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  • In a split 2-1 ruling, the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals has revived a lawsuit against the city of Charlotte and a police officer who fatally shot a man in 2017.
  • A trial judge had ruled in favor of the city and the officer. The Appeals Court majority rejected the officer's argument that he had qualified immunity against a legal complaint.
  • The dissenting Appeals Court judge accused his colleagues of misreading precedent involving qualified immunity. He would have ruled in favor of Officer David Guerra.

A split 2-1 ruling from the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals will allow a lawsuit to proceed against the city of Charlotte in a fatal 2017 shooting by a police officer. Appellate judges revived most of a suit that had been tossed out by a trial judge.

In September 2017, officer David Guerra shot and killed Ruben Galindo Chavez. The shooting followed a police call to Galindo’s apartment. Galindo had called 911 to request help from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police. He wanted to turn himself in for upcoming court proceedings. He also warned a 911 dispatcher that he had a gun in his hand.

The shooting took place as Guerra and colleagues were trying to interact with Galindo at his screen door. Guerra testified that he shot Galindo because he believed Galindo was preparing to fire his own weapon.

Azucena Zamorano Aleman, Galindo’s girlfriend and the mother of his child, filed suit against Guerra and the city in 2019. On behalf of Galindo’s estate, she alleged a Fourth Amendment violation, assault and battery, wrongful death, as well as a claim against the city for negligent training. She also claimed negligent infliction of emotional distress on her own behalf.

U.S. District Judge Robert Conrad ruled in favor of Guerra and the city. The Appeals Court majority reversed most of Conrad’s decision. The majority opinion cited “genuine disputes of material fact as to the objective reasonableness of Guerra’s actions.”

“Upon careful consideration of the video footage and the other evidence in the record, we are satisfied to affirm the district court’s summary judgment award to the City on the negligent training claim. On the other hand, we vacate the award of qualified immunity to Officer Guerra on the Fourth Amendment claim, as well as the related summary judgment awards to Guerra and the City on the balance of the state law claims,” wrote Judge Robert Bruck King for the Appeals Court majority. “Rather than directing the entry of judgment in favor of the plaintiff on any of those claims, we remand for further proceedings as to all of them.”

“Galindo posed a threat to the safety of the responding officers at the moment he was shot, but a reasonable officer on the scene would not have had probable cause to believe that he posed an ‘immediate threat’ such that deadly force could constitutionally be used against him,” King wrote. “Simply put, Officer Guerra fired at Galindo while Galindo was standing still in a position of surrender. Although Galindo was armed with a pistol, he did not threaten anyone with the pistol by ‘pointing, aiming, or firing his weapon.’”

King questioned Guerra’s statements about the suspect’s threat to police.

“At bottom, a reasonable jury could review and interpret the video footage, consider the other evidence, and decide that Galindo did not pose an immediate threat to Officer Guerra or anyone else at the moment Guerra shot him,” King wrote. “A reasonable jury could also find that Guerra fabricated his account of the fatal shooting because he knew that the real facts showed that the shooting was not justified.”

“Or a reasonable jury could find that Guerra mistakenly perceived that Galindo posed an immediate threat, but that Guerra’s mistake was not reasonable,” King added. “As such, it very well may be concluded that Guerra used excessive force in contravention of the Fourth Amendment, meaning that he is not presently entitled to qualified immunity.”

A jury also could reach the opposite conclusion, King noted. “It bears emphasis that — although a reasonable jury could rule in favor of the plaintiff after reviewing the video footage and other evidence — a reasonable jury could instead find that Galindo did pose an immediate threat at the moment Officer Guerra fatally shot him or that Guerra was reasonably mistaken in perceiving an immediate threat.”

Judge Barbara Milano Keenan joined King’s opinion. Judge Julius Richardson dissented.

“In its fifty-seven-page opinion, the majority devotes a mere three pages to whether Officer Guerra violated clearly established law,” Richardson wrote. “Its brevity is telling. While the law may be established now, we must consider the law as it stood when Galindo was shot in September 2017. And the law at that time did not clearly establish that Officer Guerra violated the Fourth Amendment.”

Richardson accused colleagues of misreading precedents to strike down Guerra’s claim of qualified immunity. “It is here that the majority goes astray,” he wrote. “Even were one to accept its definition of the right, the majority does not identify a single case published before this September 2017 shooting — let alone a ‘body of relevant case law’ — ‘finding a Fourth Amendment violation under similar circumstances.’ Its conclusory analysis instead relies on cases after the shooting and cases finding no violation.”

“All told, the majority has ‘failed to identify a case where an officer acting under similar circumstances … was held to have violated the Fourth Amendment,’” Richardson argued. “It has not shown that — based on our caselaw in September 2017 — a reasonable officer would have known that using deadly force in these circumstances was clearly unlawful, beyond debate.”

Guerra’s conduct falls in a “hazy border” between unreasonable and reasonable use of force, Richardson wrote. “That means he is entitled to qualified immunity.”

“Qualified immunity is controversial, contested, and binding. While many criticize the doctrine, lower court judges are duty-bound to faithfully apply it so long as it exists,” Richardson argued. “The majority does not. It instead joins the lengthy list of courts of appeals to improperly deny qualified immunity in a Fourth Amendment case. I refuse to join that list and respectfully dissent.”

The case will head back to a trial court to address the revived claims.