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Eleventh Circuit rules that police officers were entitled to qualified immunity in civil rights lawsuit alleging excessive force in killing of man during drug search at his home

On November 17, 2017, in Hammett v. Paulding County, No. 16-15764, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court’s ruling dismissing a plaintiff’s 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 civil rights complaint alleging excessive force by police officers in the killing of the plaintiff’s husband during the execution of a search warrant at the plaintiff’s home. The plaintiff alleged that her husband was unarmed and raised his hands in surrender, then was shot in the finger and again in the back after turning to flee following the first shot. The Eleventh Circuit concluded that the uncontroverted evidence instead showed that the decedent aggressively approached the officers with an unidentified object in his hands, which may have been a can of pepper spray found at the scene, but in any event the officers could have believed to be a weapon. The Court concluded that the plaintiff had not presented any affirmative evidence that her husband surrendered and retreated. Analyzing the case under the Fourth Amendment “reasonableness” standard, which requires a determination whether the totality of the circumstances justifies the force, and employing an objective standard from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, the Court affirmed the trial court’s ruling.