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A sheriff's deputy in South Dakota, accused of using excessive force in shooting and killing a young man, is not summarily protected from suit by qualified immunity, the Eighth Circuit held on Monday.
Christopher Capps, a 22-year-old member of the Lakota Sioux tribe, was shot and killed by Deputy David Olson in 2010. When Capps' parents sued, Olson argued that he was protected by qualified immunity. The facts alleged put that into question, the court found. Olson's alleged use of excessive force would have violated Capps' constitutional rights and prevented Olson from being covered by qualified immunity. Thus, the factual dispute must be determined at trial.
A Missing Weapon and a Shot in the Back
Olson originally approached Capps after receiving a report regarding an earlier assault. When Olson arrived, Capps was being pursued by another man. According to Olson, Capps changed direction and charged at him with a knife, leading Olson to open fire.
But Capps' parents contest Olson's version of the events, noting that Capps was shot once in the back and that no weapon was found, searched for, or even mentioned by Deputy Olson immediately after.
Reasonable Force, Qualified Immunity
Capps' parents brought a Section 1983 action against Olson for the deprivation of Capps' constitutional rights through the use of excessive force. Section 1983 actions allow individuals to sue state actors operating under the "color of law" for such violations, but provides qualified immunity if the evidence shows that there was no violation of rights or the right was not clearly established.
Olson argued that his use of force was objectively reasonable, resulting in no violation of Capps' rights. Under Fourth Amendment case law, deadly force is reasonable if a suspect poses a threat of serious bodily harm to officers or others. Olson argued that Capps' flight from the scene of an assault posted an immediate threat to himself and the other man present.
Facts in Dispute
Unfortunately for Olson, the facts supporting his claims are highly disputed. As the court notes, the Capps' expert testified that Olson's first shot was into their son's back. Whether Capps was armed or even approached Olson is also disputed. If a jury were to agree with Capps' parents' interpretation of events, Olson would have violated Capps' rights and would not be protected by qualified immunity.
What exactly occurred between Olson and Capp will now have to be determined by a jury.