Washington, DC – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a case that challenged the “qualified immunity” given to a New Jersey state trooper who shot a suicidal man in 2011.
The case was a bid to revive a lawsuit against the trooper by the family of a mentally-ill man who was allegedly holding a gun to his own head in 2011 when he was shot twice by New Jersey State Trooper Noah Bartelt, Reuters reported.
The shooting occurred on May 25, 2011 when 33-year-old Willie Gibbons violated a restraining order his former girlfriend had filed against him, WPVI reported at the time.
Angel Stephens called police and said Gibbons was at her home waving a handgun around.
Troopers had removed Gibbons from her residence the night before, according to WPVI.
Gibbons had already left Stephens’ home by the time state troopers arrived on the scene.
Stephens told them Gibbons had left in a pickup truck armed with a gun, WPVI reported.
The suspect was spotted soon after, walking on Burlington Road near Irving Avenue in Bridgeton.
Three state troopers from Bridgeton Station responded to the location, WPVI reported.
Court documents showed that when troopers arrived at Gibbons’ location, he drew a handgun that had been concealed and pointed it at his own head, Reuters reported.
Trooper Bartelt fired two shots at Gibbons and then his service weapon jammed, according to WPVI.
Gibbons was shot in the abdomen and chest.
He was airlifted to Cooper University Hospital where he later died, WPVI reported.
Law enforcement recovered the 9mm semiautomatic handgun that Gibbons had been holding at the scene.
Gibbons’ family filed a civil rights lawsuit seeking monetary damages against Trooper Bartelt, other law enforcement officers, the state of New Jersey, and the New Jersey State Police, Reuters reported.
Initially, a federal judge declined to grant Trooper Bartelt qualified immunity.
However, a three-judge panel of the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s ruling and said qualified immunity applied in the case, Reuters reported.
The panel determined that even though Gibbons, a diagnosed schizophrenic, was pointing the gun at himself when he was shot by Trooper Bartelt, he was “within range to shoot” the trooper.
Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine that shields police officers from liability for civil damages for actions taken while acting in the capacity of a law enforcement officers, as long as the officer didn’t violate a person’s established rights.
If an officer violates a person’s legally-established rights, they are not eligible to claim qualified immunity.
Qualified immunity does not offer any protection from criminal charges but was established by the U.S. Supreme Court to curb gratuitous litigation against police officers.
On a practical level, it allows law enforcement officers to make arrests and split-second decisions regarding use of force without fear of constantly having to defend themselves personally from damages, as long as their actions were legal at the time.
Even if officers are shielded under qualified immunity, people are still able to sue the officer’s law enforcement agency for damages.
On Oct. 5, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the family’s bid to hold Trooper Bartelt financially liable for Gibbons’ death, Reuters reported.
U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the lone dissent from the court’s decision to deny the family’s appeal.
Sotomayor wrote in her dissent that qualified immunity should only apply when officers act reasonably, according to Reuters.
“It does not protect an officer who inflicts deadly force on a person who is only a threat to himself,” she wrote.