ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — State police officers involved in the 2011 shooting death of a New Mexico man have won a legal victory in their effort to avoid being sued by the man’s relatives.
Following the guidance of the U.S. Supreme Court, a panel of federal appeals judges ruled Tuesday in favor three state police officers who sought immunity after relatives of Samuel Pauly sued them over claims that he was a victim of excessive force when the officers surrounded his rural home the night of Oct. 4, 2011.
The Pauly family filed its lawsuit after a grand jury declined to indict the officers.
According to the ruling, Pauly was shot through the window of his rural home by one of the officers investigating a road rage incident involving his brother earlier in the evening.
The appellate court initially sided with Pauly’s family, finding that the officers were not protected by qualified immunity, which shields government officials from liability when they are accused of violating a person’s rights in the course of performing their duties.
The officers appealed, and the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the appellate court to take another look at the case. That resulted in the ruling by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversing its earlier decision.
At issue is the high legal threshold established for filing lawsuits against police under similar circumstances. The Supreme Court had said that officers are immune from such lawsuits unless it’s clear their actions violated established rights.
In Pauly’s case, the high court found that the lower courts failed to cite any similar cases where an officer was found to have violated a person’s rights against excessive force.
Lee Hunt, an attorney representing Pauly’s family, said he plans to appeal to the high court. He also said the family’s negligence claim against the officers is still pending in state district court.
Hunt said the appellate court found the officer who shot Pauly that night violated his constitutional rights against excessive force but that no previous case law existed to tell the officers what they were doing was wrong.
“In my view, it’s such a broken law — qualified immunity. It protects officers who have engaged in unconstitutional conduct,” Hunt said. “In this case, the court found a constitutional violation, it found that it resulted in the shooting of Sam Pauly and yet the police have no accountability because of qualified immunity.”
Mark Jarmie, an attorney for the officers, said he was not authorized to comment about the latest ruling because other claims are still pending.
Tuesday’s ruling does not address the legality of the officers’ actions, only whether the officers could be sued individually.
Court documents indicate Pauly and his brother never heard police announce their presence and feared they were connected to the earlier road rage incident.
Daniel Pauly stepped out of the back of the home and fired two warning shots, while Sam Pauly opened the front window and pointed a handgun into the darkness. The officers fired and Sam Pauly was hit in the heart.
The events unfolded in less than five minutes, according to court documents.
The court acknowledged disputes over whether the officers adequately identified themselves and there were questions raised about whether the officer who shot Pauly could have issued a warning.
That officer was kneeling behind a wall about 50 feet (15 meters) away when he fired at Pauly.