Federal Appeals Court Affirms Persons Threatening Suicide Have Right to Not Be ‘Shot on Sight’ By Police
A federal appeals court affirmed that a person threatening to commit suicide has a constitutional right to not be “shot on sight” if that person is not putting anyone else in “imminent danger” or resisting arrest for a “serious crime.”
Jerome Weinmann threatened to kill himself in his garage on November 12, 2007. His wife, Susan, called 911 and told the dispatcher that McClone had “access to a long gun.” An officer from the Waupaca County Sheriff’s Department in Wisconsin was dispatched to respond to her call.
Only a few minutes after arriving at the home, Deputy Patrick McClone decided it was necessary to force his way into the garage. He could not see Jerome through the two windows he chose to use. Without using other windows and before attempting to talk to Jerome, he kicked in a door to the garage because he thought he heard noises that suggested Jerome was in the act of committing suicide.
McClone fired his weapon and shot Jerome four times in his face, thumb and torso. These injuries, according to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, “required extensive medical treatment including partial amputation of his thumb and a total replacement of his jaw’s left temporomandibular joint.”
Jerome had a .12 gauge shotgun in his lap but maintains that he never pointed it at the officer. McClone asserts the weapon was pointed at him and he was in danger, which gave him the right to shoot Jerome. He appealed a ruling by a federal district court that refused to dismiss an “excessive force” claim filed by Jerome against him.
In order to convince the court to dismiss the lawsuit, McClone had to show that the facts according to Jerome did not demonstrate that his rights were somehow violated.
McClone argued this was an “inherently dangerous encounter” because he had entered an “enclosed garage with a single entrance.” If the Seventh Circuit accepted this argument, the court claimed it would be “saying that officers are entitled, when responding to a suicide call, to use deadly force any time they forcibly enter a single-entrance room.”
“We are aware of no ruling that permits this sort of shoot-on-sight response to this class of encounters,” the appeals court declared [PDF].
The appeals court also stated, “McClone did not look through the other windows into the garage to see what Jerome was doing, nor did he try to talk to him. Instead, within three minutes of arriving at the scene, McClone opened fire. Either viewed as so plainly excessive that no analogous case is needed, or viewed in light of existing authority, this was an excessive use of force.”
The police officer accused of violating Jerome’s constitutional rights highlighted cases where an officer had been threatened by a suspect in some way. But the court insisted those examples were not similar to this case.
Acknowledging the disputed facts, the Seventh Circuit concluded that McClone had known “four things.” McClone knew that Jerome had “access to a firearm and maybe ammunition.” He knew that he was responding to a 911 call suggesting Jerome was “suicidal.” He knew that Jerome did not want to talk to the 911 dispatcher. He knew there were sounds from inside the garage. He undeerstood that Jerome had instructed the dispatcher to have the officer leave his home.
When viewing the facts most favorable to Jerome, there is no evidence that Jerome at any point wanted to hurt the police officer, and no justification for the officer’s “instant use of deadly force.”
“It does not matter for purposes of the Fourth Amendment that McClone subjectively believed that his life was in danger,” the Seventh Circuit concluded. “The test is an objective one, and taking the facts as Jerome presents them, it is not met,” which means a case against McClone can be pursued.
Creative Commons Licensed Photo of Dirksen Federal Building in Illinois where 7th Circuit Appeals Court is located. By Ken Lund