SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A US Court of Appeals has reversed a qualified immunity judgement in a civil rights lawsuit involving a Sacramento County Sheriff’s deputy who shot an unarmed man in his home following a domestic violence complaint.
Judges Sidney Thomas, Rick Clifton, and Michelle Friedland reversed a US District Judge’s ruling in favor of the deputy, Nicholas Russell, who asserted that his choice to shoot Kenard Thomas in 2017 was “objectively reasonable” and he was granted protection from qualified immunity – a legal principle that protects officials from liability unless they violate a right that is “clearly established” through existing precedent.
The original ruling was made as a summary judgement, which means Thomas’s version of events was taken as fact.
The three-judge appellate panel ruled that Russell’s actions breached that law when he shot Thomas, who emerged from a closet with his hands up holding nothing but a lighter, as deputies responded to a report that he walked by the home of a woman who had a restraining order out against him.
“Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Thomas requires assuming that Russell shot Thomas while he was slowly emerging from a closet with his hands by his ears in response to police commands to show himself,” the judges wrote. “Russell had little reason to believe Thomas might be armed with a gun, and the deputies were looking for him to serve a restraining order—not to arrest him for any crime, let alone a serious one.”
Deputies say they received a call from Thomas’s ex-girlfriend, who claimed he violated her restraining order by walking by her home with what looked like a gun in his waistband. When authorities entered a nearby abandoned home the his girlfriend said he frequented, they saw someone run from the living room towards the back of the house. That’s when they began searching the property for Thomas.
Russell and another deputy entered the back bedroom of the home and attempted to search it. After they found nothing, authorities called in a K9 and Russell slid the closet door open. That’s when Thomas exited it, shirtless with his hands up, and was shot.
No gun was ever found on Thomas and he was treated at a local Kaiser hospital. According to his lawyers, the gunshot wound he sustained from Russell has caused permanent neurological damage that has altered the way he uses his right arm. He was never charged in relation to the incident.
Attorneys for the city claimed Thomas “suddenly and without warning” came out of the closet and “could have easily shot Deputy Russell and gained control of his weapon”, which caused Russell to make a “split second decision” in shooting Thomas. The judges nitpicked that statement during oral arguments earlier this month.
Attorneys for Thomas said he posed no threat to the officers and was obviously surrendering with his hands up.
“It was obvious that Thomas did not pose a risk of harm to any person present,” his lawyers wrote in a court filing.
The judges would end up agreeing.
“It was also clearly established that an individual has a right to be free from deadly force unless he reaches for his waistband, points a weapon in his possession at the police, or makes a similarly threatening gesture indicating that he is an immediate threat to the police or the public,” the court wrote.
Attorneys of record for both parties did not immediately return requests for comment.