State Appeals Court removes Charlotte cop from lawsuit over fatal shooting

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  • The N.C. Court of Appeals has removed Charlotte police officer Brentley Vinson from a lawsuit stemming from a fatal 2016 shooting.
  • Appellate judges agreed that public official immunity protected Vinson from legal liability in the shooting of Keith Scott.

A unanimous N.C. Appeals Court panel has ruled that Charlotte police officer Brentley Vinson cannot be sued for his fatal shooting of Keith Scott in 2016. Appellate judges agreed Vinson should be removed from the suit because of public official immunity.

Scott’s widow had filed suit against Vinson and the city of Charlotte in 2018, alleging negligence, gross negligence, wrongful death, and other claims.

Thursday’s ruling will allow the suit to move forward against the city. But appellate judges reversed a trial judge’s ruling regarding Vinson.

“Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, and taking every reasonable inference in Plaintiff’s favor, Plaintiff has failed to put forth sufficient evidence to rebut the presumption that Officer Vinson acted in good faith and failed to make a prima facie case that Officer Vinson acted maliciously or outside the scope of his authority as a law enforcement officer,” wrote Judge Richard Dietz. Dietz is leaving the Appeals Court in the new year to join the N.C. Supreme Court.

“Based on the undisputed record in this case, in the tense, moment-by-moment sequence of events, a reasonable officer acting in good faith could have concluded that Scott was armed and about to use deadly force against Vinson and his fellow officers,” Dietz wrote.

The suit stemmed from events in September 2016. Dietz’s opinion noted that Vinson and his supervisor spotted Scott while conducting undercover surveillance at a Charlotte apartment complex. Vinson saw Scott “open his car door and pour marijuana from an orange pill bottle into a cigarillo. Moments later, Officer Vinson saw Scott hold up a handgun and begin to load the gun.”

Vinson’s supervisor contacted other officers to help arrest Scott. No one disputes that Vinson shot Scott while trying to make the arrest.

“Make no mistake, the undisputed facts in this case show that Keith Scott’s death was tragic,” Dietz wrote. “But with respect to Officer Vinson’s actions, that same undisputed evidence puts this case squarely in the zone of cases covered by public official immunity.”

“From the perspective of a reasonable officer acting in good faith, the facts were these: First, multiple officers on the scene saw that Scott was armed, as indicated both by their observations when initially approaching the SUV, and their repeated exclamations of ‘Gun, gun!’ and ‘Drop the gun!’ in the moments before the shooting,” according to the opinion.

“Second, Scott ignored an officer’s commands to put his hands up as the officers approached the vehicle. Finally, when Scott got out of the vehicle, his movements were unusual and, despite being surrounded by law enforcement officers, he kept his hands down at his sides, preventing the officers from seeing if he was still holding the gun.”

“Scott then walked backwards, facing toward some of the officers, with his arms still at his sides,’ Dietz added. “Body camera footage from immediately after the shooting recorded the officers stating that Scott had a gun in his hand as he lay on the ground. The footage also recorded Scott’s bloody fingers as the officers handcuffed him. The gun the officers recovered had Scott’s blood on the grip.”

“A reasonable officer faced with these facts could, in good faith, determine that the use of deadly physical force was necessary because Scott’s own use of deadly force against the officers was imminent,” Dietz wrote.

“These undisputed facts preclude Plaintiff from overcoming the heavy burden to show Officer Vinson acted with a ‘wicked purpose’ or ‘reckless indifference’ to Scott’s life,” Dietz concluded.

Judges John Tyson and Allegra Collins agreed with Dietz. Barring further appeals, the case will return to a trial court to address the remaining claims against the city.