Several law enforcement shooting deaths occurred in Alabama in the year 2023, which brings about the legal question of immunity for law enforcement officers in such situations.
In north Alabama, where we practice, there has been much publicity about the shooting deaths of Steve Perkins in Decatur and Ray King in Hazel Green. In both instances, it is unlikely that criminal charges will be brought against the law enforcement officers involved. But what are the odds that the families of Perkins and King could win a civil lawsuit for wrongful death?
In wrongful death claims against non-government employees, the family of the deceased must only prove that the wrongdoer was negligent. For example, if a delivery driver runs a red light and kills someone, the family of the deceased will be able to win a wrongful death claim because the delivery driver was negligent. Negligence is just the failure to use reasonable care that foreseeably causes harm.
But in cases where the death is caused by the negligence of a law enforcement officer, the legal principle of immunity can prevent the deceased’s family from winning a wrongful death case.
In this blog post, we will examine the different types of immunity available to law enforcement officers and whether such immunities can be defeated in cases involving law enforcement shooting deaths in Alabama.
What is Qualified Immunity?
In general, immunity is the concept that certain actors are protected from civil suits regardless of his or her conduct. Yet complete immunity is rare. There are almost always exceptions, which is where we derive the phrase “qualified immunity.”
There are two types of qualified immunity involved whenever a wrongful death claim is brought against an Alabama law enforcement officer. The first is “peace officer immunity” and the second is “state agent immunity.” Let’s examine each of those briefly:
Peace Officer Immunity
Peace officer immunity is found in Ala. Code 6-5-338, and states, in pertinent part:
Every peace officer […] shall have immunity from tort liability arising out of his or her conduct in performance of any discretionary function within the line and scope of his or her law enforcement duties.
Peace officer immunity applies to all law enforcement agencies, from State Troopers to Sheriff’s deputies to municipal police officers.
State Agent Immunity
State Agent Immunity is very similar, but expands qualified immunity to all government officials who are considered agents of the state of Alabama. State agent immunity is found in Ala. Code 36-1-12 and states:
an officer, employee or agent of the state […] is immune from civil liability in his or her personal capacity when the conduct at issue is based upon the agent’s […] [e]xercising judgment in the enforcement of the criminal laws of the state.
As with peace officer immunity, state agent immunity seemingly provides a significant level of protection from civil lawsuits.
Exceptions to Immunity for Law Enforcement Officers
Neither peace officer immunity nor state agent immunity are complete barriers to a wrongful death claim. There are several exceptions, which were recently affirmed in Ex parte Pinkard. There will be no immunity if the law enforcement officer’s conduct was any of the following:
- done in bad faith;
- done under a mistaken interpretation of the law; or
- beyond his or her authority
The facts of Ex parte Pinkard are helpful to understand these exceptions even though there was not a death involved. In that case, a state Fire Marshal was accused of concocting evidence in a fire investigation to accuse the property owner of arson. As a result, the property owner’s insurance claim was denied. The property owner sued the Fire Marshal.
The Supreme Court of Alabama found that there was sufficient evidence that the Fire Marshall acted “maliciously” during the investigation. For example, there was evidence that the Fire Marshal lied in his formal report about the property owner’s statements. There was also proof that the Fire Marshal fabricated evidence. The Supreme Court said that the property owner would be allowed to sue under the malicious exception to immunity.
Now, taking into account the law, let’s examine the two high-profile cases in north Alabama:
Immunity for Law Enforcement in the Steve Perkins Case?
The tragic killing of Steve Perkins involves unclear facts even though much of it was captured on video. What we do know is that Decatur police officers appear to swarm Mr. Perkins during a vehicle repossession in his driveway. The officers gave him little (if any) time to drop his weapon before unleashing multiple fatal rounds.
While much of the evidence has yet to be made public, an argument could be made that an exception to immunity applies. For example, were the officers acting “beyond their authority” by acting in coordination with a tow company? Or was the entire ordeal done in “bad faith”?
The Perkins family already has legal counsel and it would not be surprising to see a wrongful death lawsuit filed in the near future.
Immunity for Law Enforcement in the Ray King Case?
Ray King’s untimely death appears to be a tragic result of ill-timed miscommunication. According to multiple reports, Madison County Sheriff’s deputies responded to a report of shots being fired, but unfortunately arrived at the wrong address, the address of Ray King. Deputies knocked on Mr. King’s door and Mr. King opened the door with a firearm in his hand that was reportedly pointed in the Deputies’ direction. Deputies then fatally wounded Mr. King.
In the case of Mr. King’s killing, there would likely be a strong immunity defense. An attorney could argue that showing up at the wrong address was negligence, but state agent immunity bars claims for negligence. At the current time, it is this author’s opinion that there is no evidence that any immunity exception would apply.