Police Abuse

Cigarettes Can Kill: Florida Deputies Shoot Man Looking for a Smoke in His Own Driveway

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Escambia County Sheriff's Office

Early Saturday morning, Roy Middleton was rummaging through his mother's car in the driveway of his Warrington, Florida, home, looking for a cigarette, when he heard someone bark, "Get your hands where I can see them!" Middleton initially thought it was a neighbor playing a joke on him, but when he turned his head he saw Escambia County sheriff's deputies standing in his driveway. The next thing he knew, he says, they were shooting at him. "It was like a firing squad," Middleton told the Pensacola News Journal. "Bullets were flying everywhere." Middleton was lucky the deputies were terrible shots. His injuries were limited to a leg wound. "My mother's car is full of bullet holes though," he said. "My wife had to go and get a rental."  

The deputies came to Middleton's house around 2:42 a.m. after a neighbor saw him reaching into the car and called 911. What happened after that, from the cops' perspective, is unclear. But let's say they were unnerved by Middleton's slowness in obeying the command to show his hands and feared that he was armed. Maybe he even moved in a way that suggested to the deputies that he might be reaching for a weapon. That scenario is in some ways similar to the one confronting Merritt Landry the previous night, when he shot a teenager who had hopped the fence in front of his New Orleans home. Landry said he shot the intruder, Marshall Coulter, because he seemed to be reaching for a weapon. Coulter was in fact unarmed, although there is little doubt, given his history of burglary arrests (his brother called him "a professional thief"), what he was planning to do after climbing the fence.

There are some important differences between these two situations, of course. Middleton was standing in the driveway of his own home, where he had every right to be. If anyone was intruding, it was the sheriff's deputies, who had a lot more firepower than Landry, more training in dealing with scary situations, and less reason to be afraid. Unlike Landry, they were not awakened in the middle of the night by a dog barking at a would-be home invader. But probably the most important difference between these two cases is that the deputies were acting as armed agents of the government, while Landry was an ordinary citizen anxious to protect his pregnant wife and baby daughter. That helps explain why Landry was immediately arrested for attempted murder, while the Florida deputies have been placed on paid administrative leave pending an investigation. Although the fusillade they fired could easily have killed Middleton—an unarmed, innocent man standing on his own property—I will be very surprised if any of them face similar charges.

I am not sure Landry was justified in shooting Coulter, although he seems to have a pretty good defense under Louisiana's law allowing the use of deadly force to repel home invaders. But it seems even less likely that the deputies were justified in shooting Middleton. Assuming that both shootings are attributable to errors, the outcomes should be similar. If Landry ends up going to prison while the deputies remain free, it will confirm the double standard that lets cops make deadly or potentially deadly mistakes without facing criminal charges while giving regular folks no such leeway.