Where there were disputed facts over whether the decedent’s conduct provided justification for a state trooper to fire fatal shots, including that the officer claimed the man turned toward him while raising his hands, but the decedent was shot in the back, the officer wasn’t entitled to qualified immunity on summary judgment.
Spencer Lee Crumbley was shot dead by West Virginia State Trooper Cory Elliott. According to Elliot, he lost sight of Crumbley during a foot chase. When Elliott turned a corner, he saw Crumbley turned away from him. Crumbley then abruptly turned toward Elliott and began to raise his hands, causing Elliot to believe that he might have a gun. That is when the shooting happened. As it turned out, Crumbley did not have a gun in his hands. But his conduct earlier in the encounter, including threats of violence and erratic behavior, added to the sudden hand movements, may well have been sufficient justification for Elliott’s split-second decision to use deadly force.
But one important detail calls Elliott’s story into question: Crumbley was shot in the back. Based on that detail, Jeffery Stanton, Crumbley’s son, sued for excessive force. The district court granted the troopers’ motion for summary judgment on all counts.
The court must consider whether there are any material disputes of fact left in this record that, when resolved, would amount to the violation of a clearly established constitutional right. If there are, summary judgment is inappropriate.
If the question before the court was whether—given the split-second nature of the decision— Elliott reasonably believed that Crumbley might have a weapon and might shoot, then the court may well find qualified immunity. Crumbley was erratic that day; he had threatened to shoot the troopers multiple times; he had swung a shovel at the troopers and the troopers knew that Crumbley had a gun on the property and was inclined to use it. With all that as context, Elliott may have made an objectively reasonable decision to react with deadly force to Crumbley’s abrupt hand movements.
But the court cannot simply accept the trooper’s statements as true given potentially contradictory physical evidence, and Elliot’s testimony here is at least in tension with some other evidence. Start with the obvious: Crumbley was shot in the back. Elliott says he started shooting when Crumbley turned toward him and began to raise his hands, and that the shot in the back must have happened because Crumbley continued to turn as the shooting went on. The shot in the back does not out-and-out refute that story, but it does draw it into question. Another explanation of that fact is that Elliott shot Crumbley while his back was turned.
The shot in the hand also complicates Elliott’s narrative. Elliott’s story is not unquestionably true given the placement of the wounds. So a reasonable jury, even without expert testimony, might consider these questions and determine that not just one but two shots struck the victim while his back was turned. Beyond the physical evidence, a reasonable jury’s doubt based on the physical evidence might find support in possible inconsistencies and omissions in Elliott’s story.
Taken as a whole, the totality of the evidence presented here creates a genuine fact question about whether Elliot’s story is true or whether Crumbley was shot while running away. And if the jury finds that Crumbley was shot in the back while unarmed and running away, that would violate his clearly established rights. That is enough to defeat qualified immunity, at least at this point.
The district court rightly questioned whether Trooper Cornelius could be held liable as a mere bystander. During oral argument, however, Stanton’s counsel expressly withdrew his bystander-liability claims against Cornelius. Stanton also asks the court to “either recalibrate or abolish” qualified immunity. This request is, of course, beyond the court’s say-so. Suffice to say that qualified immunity is “controversial, contested, and binding.”
Finally, Stanton’s state-law claims were dismissed because, according to the district court, he failed to properly plead those claims under the West Virginia Wrongful Death Act. The court finds that Stanton has made plausible allegations meeting the required showing under that statute, even if he has put those allegations under the wrong headings.
Reversed in part, affirmed in part and remanded.
Stanton v. Elliott (Lawyers Weekly No. 001-021-22, 20 pp.) (Julius N. Richardson, J.) Case No. 21-1197, Feb. 1, 2022. From N.D. W.Va. at Elkins (John Preston Bailey, J.) James Anthony McKowen for Appellant. Michael Deering Mullins for Appellees. 4th Cir.