Judge Mickey J. Norman of the Baltimore County Circuit Court recently overturned a jury’s decision to grant over $38 million to the family of a woman fatally shot by police in August of 2016. The woman, 23-year-old Korryn Gaines, was shot repeatedly by Baltimore County police officer Royce Ruby following a lengthy standoff in her apartment.
The standoff began on Aug. 1, 2016, when Gaines failed to appear in court for a traffic stop charge and a warrant was put out for her arrest. Police officers found Gaines in her living room with a shotgun and immediately called in a SWAT unit and hostage negotiators. Gaines’ five-year-old son, Kodi, was also present with her.
During the initial trial, Ruby testified that he saw Gaines raise her shotgun towards the officers, and that he fired his first shot only then. After the first shot, Gaines’ shotgun discharged twice, and Ruby opened fire a second time in self defense. Kenneth Ravenell, a lawyer representing Kodi, states that Ruby fired his first shot from outside the apartment. He did this knowing that Kodi was in the kitchen with his mother, but without being able to see him, putting him in danger. Kodi was struck in the face by a bullet fragment, but was not fatally injured.
In Feb. 2018, an all-female jury found that Ruby was not reasonable and awarded over $38 million in awarded damages to the family of Gaines on the grounds that her civil rights had been violated, and that Ruby had committed battery to both mother and son.
On Feb. 14, 2019, however, Norman determined that Ruby was entitled to qualified immunity—a legal doctrine that defends government officials from being sued for their actions while acting in an official capacity, as long as their actions don’t violate “clearly established” federal law of constitutional rights. Norman evaluated that Gaines’ civil rights were not violated, because Gaines did not surrender to the police or put down her shotgun for over six hours. Ravenell called the judge’s ruling, “factually wrong and legally flawed in many respects,” and stated that he planned to appeal the decision.
Advocates from both the left and the right have asked the Supreme Court to revisit the qualified immunity defense, arguing that it is used to prevent justice for victims of abuse, particularly in cases involving police shootings. In July 2018, a group of criminal rights advocates—including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Law Enforcement Action Partnership and a political group run by the Koch brothers—filed a submission to the high court, citing numerous fatal shootings by police across the country in which victims were denied relief due to qualified immunity. The groups say that setting this precedent has eroded trust in law enforcement officers.
“Every single day, we’re inundated with stories of people being shot, killed or otherwise aggrieved by law enforcement, and qualified immunity stops them from getting relief,” said Somil Trivedi, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union. “It also affects the good officers, the ones who obey the law, stripping them of the credibility that they need to do their job.”