Corbitt v. Vickers

Court: 11th Circuit
Case Number: No. 17-5566
Decision Date: July 10, 2019
Case Type: Immunity - Official
The Eleventh Circuit held that a child’s right to not be shot in the leg was not clearly established after a police officer shot the child while attempting to shoot a family dog. Vickers was a deputy sheriff in Coffee County, Georgia when he took part in an operation to apprehend a criminal suspect who had wandered into the area of the Corbitt property. At the time this was occurring, one adult and six minor children were in the Corbitt yard and two more minor children were inside the home, none of whom were related to the search for the criminal suspect. When law enforcement entered the Corbitt property they ordered all persons to get down on the ground and they handcuffed and held the adult at gunpoint. While everyone was on the ground, Vickers fired his weapon at a family dog and missed. The dog retreated under the house and no other efforts were made to restrain the dog, even though no one appeared threatened by the dog. A few seconds later the dog reappeared and was approaching its owners when Vickers fired a second shot, which also missed the dog. Unfortunately, the shot struck a child who was only 18 inches from Vickers and clearly visible in the back of the knee. 
Corbitt brought suit individually and as a parent of the shooting victim under Section 1983 against Vickers alleging deprivation of the right to be free from excessive force as guaranteed by the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Vickers filed a motion to dismiss asserting that he was entitled to qualified immunity because there was not a bright line indicating that the act of firing at the dog and unintentionally hitting a human victim was unlawful. The district court held that VIckers was not entitled to qualified immunity, highlighting that no officer was required to discharge a weapon, that no one tried to restrain the dog, and that the victim was only 18 inches away from Vickers when he fired the shot. On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit held that the victim was seized by law enforcement at the time of the shooting and, as a result, the court determined that it could only address the qualified immunity issue as it related to the claim that the second shot violated a clearly established Fourth Amendment right. The court held that the victim was not the intended target of the arrest operation which made the case less obvious. As a result, the court held that the Fourth Amendment claim was based on a governmental action that was not directed towards the victim and, thus, the Corbitt claim could not overcome Vickers’s claim for qualified immunity.