Federal Appeals Court rules against Greensboro police officer who fatally shot suspect

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  • The 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the estate of Joseph Lopez can move forward with its lawsuit against Greensboro Police officer Matthew Hamilton. Hamilton shot and killed Lopez in 2021.
  • Hamilton had argued that federal qualified immunity and North Carolina's public official immunity protected him from the Lopez estate's lawsuit.
  • A unanimous three-judge appellate panel agreed with the trial judge who rejected Hamilton's legal arguments.

The 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals will allow the family of Joseph Lopez to continue pursuing its federal lawsuit against the Greensboro Police officer who shot and killed Lopez in 2021.

Officer Matthew Hamilton had argued that federal qualified immunity and North Carolina’s public official immunity protected him from the Lopez estate’s suit.

In an unsigned opinion Wednesday, a unanimous three-judge 4th Circuit panel affirmed US District Judge Loretta Biggs’ decision to reject Hamilton’s argument.

The opinion spelled out details of the fatal shooting as described in the lawsuit.

“On November 19, 2021, the Greensboro Police Department received a report that Lopez was attempting to enter a residence,” the court opinion explained. “Multiple officers, including Officer Hamilton, responded and found Lopez inside a small room located in the back of a garage at the relevant residence.”

“Officer Hamilton, who was a police dog handler and had his dog with him, approached and opened the door of the room,” the opinion continued. “Without entering, Officer Hamilton said, ‘Greensboro police, if you’re in there, make yourself known.’ Lopez responded, ‘Yes, I’m here.’ Officer Hamilton then instructed Lopez to ‘[c]ome on out with [his] hands up or [Officer Hamilton would] send [his] dog in there and he[ would] bite [Lopez].’ Lopez replied that he would come out of the room when it was ‘safe’ to do so.”

“’Shortly thereafter,’ Officer Hamilton released his dog into the room and the dog attacked Lopez, who ‘yelled out in distress.’ ‘Seconds later,’ Officer Hamilton ‘walked through the door, pulled his handgun from his holster,’ and ‘without saying anything’ fatally shot Lopez ‘square in the face,’” according to the opinion.

“At the time he was shot, Lopez was sitting in a chair approximately fifteen feet away from Officer Hamilton and was unarmed, made no verbal or physical threats, and ‘presented no immediate danger’ to anyone,” the opinion continued. “However, Officer Hamilton ‘attempted to cover-up’ his actions ‘by falsely claiming to his fellow officers that “[he] saw something in [Lopez’] hand.”’ He and the other officers then moved Lopez’ body and gave false stories to investigators.”

Appeals Court Judges Harvie Wilkinson, Steven Agee, and Henry Floyd rejected Hamilton’s legal arguments for immunity.

“Officer Hamilton argues that there are insufficient factual allegations to support the Estate’s contention that he violated Lopez’ right to be free from the unreasonable use of deadly force. We disagree,” judges wrote.

“When making inferences in the Estate’s favor, Lopez’ actions suggest that he was, at most, trespassing — a minor crime that does not support the use of deadly force,” the court opinion explained. “Second and most importantly, Lopez did not pose an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others. At the time he was shot, Lopez was fifteen feet away from Officer Hamilton, had just been attacked by a dog, was unarmed, and did not make any threats. Deadly force in these circumstances is simply not justified.”

“Officer Hamilton also contends that there are simply no allegations in the complaint that show that he knew Lopez was unarmed,” appellate judges wrote. “He suggests that the garage may have been dark and he therefore may not have been able to see Lopez well.”

“But this argument turns the excessive force inquiry on its head,” the opinion continued. “Officers are not entitled to use deadly force simply because they are unsure whether the suspect poses a threat; instead, officers must affirmatively demonstrate that they had probable cause to believe the suspect was dangerous before they resorted to such tactics.”  

Hamilton enjoys neither federal nor state immunity from the Lopez suit, judges determined. “Because we conclude that, under the facts alleged, Officer Hamilton violated Lopez’ clearly established rights, we also conclude that he is not entitled to public official immunity.”

As an unpublished opinion, the case does not serve as a binding precedent in the 4th Circuit.