A woman whose 10-year-old child was shot by a police officer will receive no compensation for her child's medical bills after a federal court ruled last week in Corbitt v. Vickers that the officer was protected by qualified immunity.
In 2014 a criminal suspect named Christopher Barnett entered Amy Corbitt's front yard where a group of children were also playing. The police soon followed in pursuit of Barnett. The officers held Barnett and the children at gunpoint, ordering them all to get on the ground. All complied, including Barnett, who was apprehended without incident.
But Bruce, the Corbitt family dog, sauntered over to Coffee County, Georgia, Deputy Sheriff Matthew Vickers, who attempted to shoot the animal, regardless of the fact that "no one appeared threatened by [Bruce]," as the 11th Circuit put it. Vickers missed. The dog briefly retreated, then reappeared, prompting Vickers to shoot at the animal once more. Vickers missed the dog again, but this time he hit Corbitt's 10-year-old child in the back of the knee. That child was lying on the ground a mere 18 inches from Vickers, according to court documents.
The child, referred to as "SDC" throughout the legal proceedings, has since "suffered severe pain and mental trauma," according to the 11th Circuit, and has required ongoing care from an orthopedic surgeon.
In response to the shooting of her child, Amy Corbitt filed a $2,000,000 suit for special and compensatory damages. Vickers countered with a motion to dismiss, which argued "that [Vickers] was entitled to qualified immunity because case law had not staked out a 'bright line' indicating that the act of firing at the dog and unintentionally shooting SDC was unlawful."
The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia agreed with Corbitt, holding in 2017 that Deputy Sheriff Vickers' use of force violated the child's Fourth Amendment rights.
But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit reversed that judgment last week, holding that Vickers deserved qualified immunity because "Corbitt failed to present us with any materially similar case from the United States Supreme Court, this Court, or the Supreme Court of Georgia that would have given Vickers fair warning that his particular conduct violated the Fourth Amendment." In other words, because there was no earlier case on the books declaring this particular type of conduct to be clearly unconstitutional, the officer received qualified immunity.
Furthermore, according to the 11th Circuit, one relevant Supreme Court precedent, Brower v. County of Inyo (1989), directly cut in favor of the officer. According to Brower, "a Fourth Amendment violation depends upon intentional action on the part of the officer." In short, according to the 11th Circuit's application of Brower, because Vickers meant to shoot the dog—not the child—his actions should be covered by qualified immunity.
The qualified immunity doctrine centers on the idea of reasonableness. Would a reasonable police officer have known that he was violating a constitutional right? That is essentially the litmus test.
Writing in dissent, 11th Circuit Judge Charles Wilson insisted that Vickers clearly deserved to flunk that test in this case. "Facing no apparent threat, Officer Vickers chose to fire his lethal weapon in the direction of these children," Wilson wrote. "No reasonable officer would engage in such recklessness and no reasonable officer would think such recklessness was lawful. Therefore, Wilson concluded, "I agree with the district court that Officer Vickers should not be entitled to qualified immunity."