Qualified Immunity for Shooting Knife-Wielding Suspect from 3 Feet

by | July 30, 2019

Swearingen v. Judd, (8th Cir. 2019)

An officer responded to a report of a man walking outside of the officer’s house, carrying a knife and slashing tires of cars parked in the area. As the officer approached in his patrol car, he saw Ryan Swearingen crouched near the driver side rear tire of the officer’s personal vehicle. When Swearingen saw the officer, he ran. The officer pursued, calling for assistance.

The officer saw Swearingen enter a house, which was later determined to be Swearingen’s parents’ residence. The officer banged on the door and Swearingen’s parents were awakened by the noise. They saw the officer and his backup at the door and Swearingen moving around the house waving a knife. The parents and the officers yelled at Swearingen to drop the knife, but he didn’t.

Three officers entered the residence, two with pistols drawn and one holding a TASER device. When Swearingen’s father blocked one of the officers from moving toward Swearingen, other officers broke through a window in a locked door and entered the house. An officer noticed a closet door moving and slightly ajar. At the same time, another officer pointed the TASER device’s laser sight toward the door opening and called out, “The door moved. Somebody is behind that door.”

An officer opened the closet door with his right hand as he held his pistol in his left. Swearingen was standing behind the closet door with a knife. The officer stepped back and fired three shots that struck Swearingen. The officer and Swearingen were about 2 to 3 feet apart when the officer fired. Swearingen died.

Swearingen was standing behind the closet door with a knife. The officer stepped back and fired three shots that struck Swearingen.

Swearingen’s parents sued the officers, claiming the officer’s gunshots constituted excessive force. They argued Swearingen was suspected only of nonviolent tire slashing and was outnumbered by several officers. The parents also claimed Swearingen held the knife down at his side with the blade pointing toward his elbow and he never charged at the officers.

For purposes of deciding (or reviewing) summary judgment, a court must accept the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs. The court accepted as undisputed fact that the officer who fired was suddenly confronted, at a distance of only 3 feet, by Swearingen, who was still armed with a knife after ignoring multiple commands to drop it. Even assuming—as the parents claimed—Swearingen did not charge at the officer and was holding the knife toward himself, the court held Swearingen “still had been noncompliant and could have caused serious injury or death in a matter of seconds by repositioning himself and the knife. The situation is fairly described as tense and rapidly evolving.” Thus, the officers were entitled to qualified immunity.

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over three decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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