The Tragic Death of an Innocent Man
Eurie A. Stamps was an innocent, 68-year old man living in a Framingham, Massachusetts home also occupied by suspected drug dealers. On January 5, 2011, he was in his pajamas, watching a basketball game on TV. A SWAT team assembled to raid the home and execute a search warrant. During that raid, Officer Paul Duncan executed Stamps in cold blood, at a time when he was lying on the floor, face down, hands above his head, fully compliant with the commands of the SWAT team members. Before they went into the house, SWAT team members were told that Stamps would be in the house, that he had nothing on his record but traffic offenses, had never owned or possessed a weapon, and that he was not involved with drugs or drug dealing.
Officer Duncan's Claim for Immunity from Suit
Officer Duncan claimed that the shooting was an accident - that he had his shotgun pointed at Stamps's head, safety off, finger on the trigger, and accidentally pulled the trigger. He claimed that he should have "qualified immunity" from suit, because it was an accident, even though his training, and the department's official procedures, prohibited police officers from holding a loaded weapon, safety off, finger on the trigger, to an innocent man's head who was obeying all commands of the raiding officers.
First Circuit Rejects Qualified Immunity
The First Circuit Court of Appeals, in an opinion released on February 5, 2016, rejected "qualified immunity" for Duncan and allowed the suit to go forward. Under the doctrine of qualified immunity, a civil rights lawsuit against a police officer cannot go forward unless the plaintiff can show that (1) the facts alleged or shown by the plaintiff make out a violation of a constitutional right; and (2) that the right was 'clearly established' by court precedent at the time of the defendant's alleged violation. The idea is that a police officer cannot be sued unless the officer should have known that his conduct violated the United States Constitution.
Unintentional Acts can Violate a Person's Civil Rights
The First Circuit held that "Even the unintentional or accidental use of deadly force in the course of an intentional seizure may violate the Fourth Amendment if the officer's actions that resulted in the injury were objectively unreasonable.” The Court held that it was objectively unreasonable for Officer Duncan, in violation of official police policies, to release the safety, put his finger inside the trigger guard rather than outside the guard, and point the weapon at the head of a man who was lying face down, complying with all law enforcement requests, and was not involved in any of the criminal activity that brought the police to the home in the first place.
What Happened to Officer Duncan?
All across the country, we see it time and time again: police officers who murder innocent civilians are not prosecuted, are not fired from their jobs, the police are not held accountable. And in this case, that is what happened. According to this Washington Post story, police investigators helped Duncan shape his story in order to meet the requirements of the qualified immunity doctrine. The Middlesex District Attorney, in a report that didn't even bother to determine whether Duncan actually fired his gun or whether it went off accidentally, cleared Duncan from all wrongdoing. Duncan was, however, removed from the SWAT Team based on his undisputed derogation of several official policies that are meant to protect innocent civilians from death at the hands of police firearms. And thanks to the First Circuit Court of Appeals, Mr. Stamp's loved ones will have their day in court in an effort to, at least, hold Duncan civilly accountable for what he did.
The Militarization of Our Nation's Police Forces
Poor Mr. Stamps, shot at point blank range while lying on his living room floor in his pajamas, is not just the victim of a reckless police officer. He is yet another victim of the changing culture of law enforcement in America, where our big city and small town police forces alike have been transformed into paramilitary forces, with armored vehicles, military body armor, battering rams, explosive devices, automatic weapons, and then unleashed upon our society with little oversight and even less accountability. And it will continue, as long as we tolerate it, and as long as we continue to bankroll the never-ending "war on drugs" that has destroyed countless lives for four decades and counting, without reducing drug distribution or drug consumption in america.