Is shooting someone 39 times—11 in the back—ever justified? Courts need scientific evidence to understand deadly force incidents. AP Photo/The News-Gazette, Robert K. O’Daniell
It’s important to consider the science of human dynamics when assessing the use of deadly force in shooting incidents. AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
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Since attending the Force Science Research Center’s week-long certification course last summer, I’ve become more intrigued with the facts and circumstances forming the basis of numerous civil rights lawsuits involving multiple officers firing multiple shots. Not surprisingly, these cases are deemed controversial just by the sheer number of bullets fired or the location of the bullet entry wounds, particularly when they’re found in suspects’ backs. But, as some of us already know, a reasonable, logical and scientific explanation for the multitude of shots or their location lies underneath all the controversy and is waiting to be uncovered and cultivated.
One such case from New Jersey was recently decided on appeal and, unfortunately for the officers involved, was remanded back to the district court to be tried before a jury. Upon review of the appellate court’s opinion, I was immediately struck by what was so seemingly obvious—any defense of a shooting involving bullet strikes to the back, or what has been termed by the plaintiff’s bar as “execution shootings,” requires the use of scientific evidence through the use of expert testimony to explain human dynamics in force situations. Without it, judges (on motions for summary judgment) and jurors (at trial) will be forced to rely on their own experiences (or lack thereof) in determining the basis for officers shooting suspects in the back.
After a thorough review of the district court docket, and as of this writing, it appears the defendant police officers haven’t yet retained expert witnesses to assist them in explaining the circumstances of the shooting from a scientific standpoint. As the summary of the facts below illustrate, the science of this shooting is a necessary component to understanding what happened and demonstrating that the officers’ conduct wasn’t unreasonable.
On a summer night in 2003, Eric Quick led police officers on a chase on Interstate 295 driving a stolen vehicle. After ditching the car, he fled into nearby darkened woods with the officers following. When the officers caught up to Quick, he was standing with one hand in his waistband. After Quick suddenly pulled his hand out as if he were drawing a gun, the officers open fired and killed him. In all, 39 bullets had been fired—11 of which struck Quick from behind.
The administrator of Quick’s estate filed a lawsuit against the officers, alleging that their use of force was unreasonable and violated the Fourth Amendment. The officers filed a motion for summary judgment, asserting that their actions were reasonable as a matter of law. The federal district court granted the officers’ motion and the administrator promptly filed an appeal. The appellate court affirmed in part and reversed in part the district court’s decision.
The following facts are taken from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals’ opinion.1 At approximately 10 p.m. on July 21, 2003, five New Jersey state troopers were in the police station when they overheard the radio dispatcher report that local police officers were engaged in a pursuit close-by. The troopers left to assist the officers. By the time they arrived, the suspect, now known to be Quick, had abandoned the car and escaped into the woods bordering the interstate. The troopers were also advised that one of the local officers went in after Quick. Four of the troopers went into the woods to provide backup while the other stayed behind.
The woods were so dark, thick and dense that the officers needed their flashlights to see what was directly in front of them. One of the officers stumbled over Quick, who was hiding under a bush. The trooper ordered Quick to show his hands and surrender, but he refused and ran away.
The trooper and a second trooper nearby chased Quick again until he became trapped in a thicket. With nowhere else to go, Quick turned to face the two troopers who now drew their firearms. The two troopers shouted, “Don’t make me shoot you!” and, as stated by the appellate court, “(inconsistently) ordered the suspect to show his hands and to freeze.”2 The other two troopers and the local officer heard the shouting and joined the officers. When they arrived, one of the troopers drew his firearm as well. In all, three troopers had their weapons drawn on Quick.
All of the officers were standing between five and eight feet from Quick, who was illuminated by the officers’ flashlights. The troopers repeatedly ordered the suspect to “show his hands” and to “freeze.” Quick was facing the officers but not directly. From a scientific standpoint, Quick’s positioning is critical. Quick “was standing at an angle, with his right shoulder forward. His left hand was positioned above his forehead (apparently to shield his eyes from the light), while his right hand was tucked into the left side of his waistband and appeared to be clutching an object.”3
Suddenly, Quick pulled his right hand out of his waistband, not as if to surrender, but as if he were drawing a gun. As Quick made the abrupt movement, the three troopers shot at him. As the first shots were fired, a flashlight that was held by a non-firing trooper was struck by a projectile and he fell to the ground.4 The local officer went to the trooper’s aid, saw that he wasn’t wounded and helped him up. The three troopers continued to fire their weapons at Quick. “At some point, the suspect turned away from the officers, yet they kept firing, shooting him in the legs and buttocks.”5
Quick fell to the ground onto his stomach and died.
The evidence revealed that the troopers fired “continuously for 10 seconds, shooting a total of 39 rounds.”6 Two troopers fired 14 rounds each (emptying their magazines) while the third officer fired 11 rounds. In all, 18 bullets struck Quick, 11 of them from behind.
A medical examiner found that two bullets struck Quick in the chest and were likely fatal. Unfortunately, he couldn’t determine when, during the course of the shooting, the fatal bullets hit him.
It turned out that Quick wasn’t armed with a weapon. Instead, he had pulled out a crack pipe—clear and cylindrical, shaped like a 2" cigarette. The toxicology report determined that Quick was under the influence of cocaine and heroin at the time of the shooting.
On appeal, the appellate court recognized that the issue to be determined was whether the troopers’ use of force was unreasonable under the totality and circumstances of the situation they were confronted with. It acknowledged that the troopers were justified in opening fire when Quick suddenly pulled his right hand out of his waistband as if he were drawing a firearm. Indeed, “[a]n officer is not constitutionally required to wait until he sets eyes upon [a] weapon before employing deadly force to protect himself against a fleeing suspect who . . . moves as though to draw a gun.”7 Waiting to verify the existence of a weapon could be fatal: “Police officers do not enter into a suicide pact when they take an oath to uphold the Constitution.”8
However, the appellate court found that there was a dispute in facts as to whether the troopers’ continued use of force, despite its initial justification, was unreasonable. “Even where an officer is initially justified in using force, he may not continue to use such force after it has become evident that the threat justifying the force has vanished.”9 According to the court of appeals, the troopers fired as Quick rapidly moved his right hand out of his waistband. It found that the troopers reasonably believed that Quick was pulling a gun on them.
But, once Quick made his initial sudden movement, his right hand was visible to the troopers who were standing within five to eight feet from him, illuminated by their flashlights. In fact, the appellate court noted that one of the troopers could see Quick’s right hand as he fired his weapon. Even so, the troopers continued to fire their weapons for 10 seconds for a total of 39 rounds. The court noted that on these facts, a jury could find that the troopers should have recognized that Quick was unarmed and stopped firing sooner.
The appellate court addressed the fact that an officer went down to the ground after his flashlight was struck by a projectile. The court concluded that the troopers reasonably could have believed that the flashlight was hit by return fire, thereby justifying the firing of additional shots. Yet, the flashlight was struck as the first shots were fired. Accordingly, a jury could find that the troopers should have realized that he wasn’t armed at some point and should have stopped shooting.
Interestingly, the appellate court, like so many of those unfamiliar with the science of human dynamics in force situations, took issue with the fact that 11 of the 18 bullets that hit Quick were from behind. It noted that the troopers tried to explain that the bullets struck the suspect as he spun around and fell to the ground as the final shots were fired. In the court’s words—“Frankly, this explanation sounds a bit far-fetched. If the troopers’ account were accurate, one might expect to discover that a small number of bullets hit Quick from behind. In fact, more than half of the 18 bullets that struck Quick hit him from behind. In these circumstances, a jury may find that the troopers improperly continued firing after Quick had turned away from them and no longer posed a threat.”10
In the end, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals held that the district court correctly determined that the troopers’ initial use of deadly force was reasonable. However, as to the troopers’ continuation to shoot, it found that the facts couldn’t be resolved as a matter of law. It noted that it might be the case that the troopers were justified in firing all 39 shots, but the issue needed to be determined by a jury. It remains to be seen. References
1. Lamont v. New Jersey, No. 09-1845 2011 WL 753856 (3rd Cir. 2011).
2. Id. at *1.
3. Id. at *2.
4. It was later determined that one of the trooper’s shots had ricocheted and struck the flashlight.
7. Lamont, at *5 (citing Thompson v. Hubbard, 257 F.3d 896, 899 (8th Cir. 2001).
9. Id. at *6 (citations omitted).
10. Lamont, at *7.
Do not construe this column as legal advice. Each police officer should consult with an attorney in their jurisdiction for legal advice on any specific issue.