The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled Monday that former officers from the White Plains Police Department were not entitled to qualified immunity on a motion to dismiss civil claims stemming from the 2011 killing of an elderly and mentally ill black man alone in his city-owned apartment.
The ruling, from a panel of the federal appeals court, revived claims by the family of Kenneth Chamberlain Sr., 68, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who was fatally shot by police in White Plains after he accidentally activated his emergency medical alert system.
The panel rejected the district court judge’s ruling that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity, which shields government officials from being sued for actions performed in their official capacity absent violations of a ”clearly established” federal law or constitutional rights.
The Second Circuit ruled that Chamberlain’s estate had established that the complaint established a plausible claim that the officer’s decision to enter Chamberlain’s apartment in full tactical gear without a warrant was an “unlawful entry” that violated his constitutional protections against illegal searches and seizures.
“Since the officers’ qualified immunity defense is not clearly established by allegations in the Amended Complaint as augmented by the relevant recordings … the district court erred in applying it in the context of the Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss,” Judges Robert D. Sack and Peter W. Hall wrote in the decision.
According to court documents, Chamberlain accidentally activated his his Life Aid medical button early in the morning of Nov. 19, 2011. After being unable to contact Chamberlain, the Life Aid operator alerted city officials, who dispatched an ambulance and police squad car to the apartment.
Despite the dispatcher’s warnings that Chamberlain suffered from mental illness, the responding officers began banging loudly on his door and shouting demands that they be allowed to enter. The noise, Monday’s opinion said, startled Chamberlain, who then activated his Life Aid button to report “an emergency” that “the White Plains Police Department [is] banging on my door and I did not call them and I am not sick.”
According to the opinion, Chamberlain said he had not called the police, and repeatedly told the officers that he did not need assistance. The communications and events were captured via police video and audio recordings from Life Aid.
Officers responded in tactical gear, with handguns, a beanbag shotgun, Taser, riot shield and pepper spray, causing him to become increasingly agitated and afraid that the police were there to kill him. Suffering from “hallucinations and flashbacks to his time of military service,” Chamberlain brandished a knife through a crack in his door, telling the officers that he needed to protect himself.
After an hour of responding to the scene, the officers removed the hinges to Chamberlain’s apartment door, tased him, fired beanbags and then fatally shot him twice.
U.S. District Judge Cathy Seibel of the Southern District of New York in December 2013 ruled that under the “emergency aid doctrine,” the officers acted reasonably in entering the apartment because he could have posed a threat to himself or others that could have been with him.
Even if the warrantless entry was not justified, Seibel said, the responding officers were entitled to qualified immunity because it “would not be unreasonable for an objective officer to conclude that there was a risk that an occupant of the apartment needed police or medical assistance that justified the officers’ entry into the apartment.”
The Second Circuit, however, disagreed with Seibel’s reasoning on appeal.
The panel said that the officer’s escalated the situation while outside his door and with their use of force as they made their way inside. It was clear, the judges said, that the officers were aware of Chamberlain’s history of mental illness, and that a “reasonable officer” should have known that their actions were exacerbating the situation.
“These facts as alleged in the complaint and related documents, and viewed in the light most favorable to appellant, give rise to the plausible inference that the officers knew that Chamberlain was not in need of urgent medical assistance but chose to enter his home anyway,” the Sack and Hall wrote.
“We conclude that a reasonable, experienced officer would not have determined there was probable cause to believe that Chamberlain needed urgent medical attention,” the judges said.
The panel also noted that a qualified immunity defense faces a “high bar” on a motion to dismiss because of procedural conflicts and said that it could be raised again as the litigation proceeds.
“And it may well be that the defendant police officers in this case are ultimately entitled to immunity, indeed, at the ‘earliest possible stage in litigation,’” they said. “But today is not that day.”
Debra Cohen, who represents Chamberlain’s family, said in a statement that “we are ready to proceed to trial and hold these officers accountable for their unlawful actions.”
Contacted by phone Monday, Cohen, a professor at Pace University’s Elisabeth Haub School of Law and co-chair of the Civil Rights Practice Group of Newman Ferrara, said the decision meant that “we are hopefully beginning to see some correction in the overly broad application of qualified immunity to the actions of police officers.”
“It’s for a jury to decide the reasonableness of their actions,” she said.