Officer Guilty of Negligence for Shooting Unarmed Man

By Teresa Anderson

A police officer is guilty of gross negligence after shooting an unarmed man who was being arrested for failure to pay child support. The officer, who claimed that he intended to draw his Taser, violated the law when he neglected to verify that he had mistakenly drawn his gun, according to ruling by a federal appeals court. The officer’s actions, determined the court, were objectively unreasonable.

In 2003, a Maryland court ordered Frederick Henry to pay child support or face jail time. After Henry failed to comply, a warrant was issued for his arrest. On October 20, 2003, Officer Robert Purnell attempted to serve the warrant at Henry’s last known address. Purnell approached the home and spoke with a man sitting on the front porch. The man said he was Henry’s friend and would relay Purnell’s message to Henry’s wife, who was inside the house. The man also told Purnell that Henry worked at American Paving Company.

Purnell visited American Paving Company where an employee confirmed that Henry had not worked there for three months. When the employee showed Purnell a photo of Henry, Purnell recognized the “friend” he had spoken to outside Henry’s home. Purnell returned to the home and spoke with Henry’s wife. She said that Henry was not home but that he worked for a man in a white pickup truck. Later, Henry’s wife testified that Purnell seemed “very upset” and said he was “going to get [Henry] for pulling a whammy.”

Three days later, Purnell spotted a white pickup truck. He followed the vehicle until it parked in the driveway of Henry’s home. Henry exited the vehicle to talk to Purnell. However, Henry turned and began to run towards his house. Purnell ran after Henry.

When Purnell was about five to 10 feet away from Henry, he pulled his service revolver, a Glock handgun. Purnell did not issue any warnings, commands, or instructions before firing a single shot and hitting Henry in the elbow. At the scene, Purnell indicated that he did not mean to shoot Henry, but accidentally grabbed his gun instead of his Taser.

Henry sued Purnell for violation of his Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure. Purnell requested summary judgment—a hearing based on the facts of a case, without a trial. Purnell argued that he was entitled to qualified immunity, which is a doctrine that shields government employees from reasonable actions undertaken in good faith.

A series of legal motions began, culminating in a June 2008 decision by the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland granting Purnell’s summary judgment. Henry appealed the verdict.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit overturned the lower court’s decision, ruling in favor of Henry. The court noted that there was no reason for Purnell to suspect that Henry posed any threat. Henry had no criminal history and the police had ample information about his whereabouts. In the written opinion of the case, the court noted that “a reasonable officer in these circumstances would have no grounds for believing Henry was armed or dangerous.”

The court was not swayed by Purnell’s contention that he mistakenly drew his gun instead of his Taser. The evidence, according to the court, showed that confusion between the two weapons was unlikely. The Taser was carried a foot lower than the Glock, the two weapons were markedly different weights, the Taser had a thumb safety unlike the gun, and Purnell had time to look and see which weapon he was using before firing. However, even if Purnell was genuinely confused, that fact is irrelevant to the legal decision, according to the court. “Purnell fails to understand that his subjective beliefs or intentions have no place in our constitutional analysis, which concerns the objective reasonableness of the officer’s conduct in light of the relevant facts and circumstances,” wrote the court.

photo by bushpig from flickr


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