Judge Anne Conway let Sylvester off the hook, too. Her main reason: Scott’s gun.
“Andrew Scott made a fateful decision that night: he chose to answer his door with a gun in his hand. That changed everything. That is the one thing that — more than anything else — led to this tragedy,” Conway wrote in her Sept. 18, 2014, decision to toss out the lawsuit.
Conway’s ruling lays bare a sometimes tragic conflict inherent in the U.S. legal system. This conflict, fostered by the Supreme Court in recent years, pits Americans’ cherished gun rights against formidable legal protections for police accused of excessive force in the country with the most heavily armed citizenry in the world. When that conflict plays out in court, as it did in the Scott case, cops often win.
The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteed Scott’s right to have a gun. Under a landmark 2008 Supreme Court ruling, District of Columbia v. Heller, he had an explicit right to keep and use a gun for self-defense at home.
None of that mattered, in the end. It was trumped by Sylvester’s claim that he was protected by qualified immunity, a controversial legal doctrine the Supreme Court created 50 years ago to shield police and other government officials from civil liability for actions undertaken on the job.
In her decision, Conway determined that Sylvester was legally justified to use deadly force because Scott was holding a gun, and that the officer was thus entitled to immunity. Conway’s decision was later upheld by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. The courts’ rulings meant, in effect, that Scott gave up his Fourth Amendment rights when he exercised his Second Amendment rights.
Cases like these are why some gun rights advocates want qualified immunity to be reined in. “These cases are rare, but they shouldn’t happen at all. When they do happen, law enforcement should be held liable,” said Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, a Bellevue, Washington-based group that filed a brief in support of Mauck and the Scott family’s failed attempt to appeal their case to the Supreme Court. Gottlieb said police officers should not be able to cite the mere presence of a gun as a threat that justifies the use of deadly force.
Another gun rights group, the Firearms Policy Coalition, based in Sacramento, California, also favors reform of qualified immunity, Director of Legal Strategy Adam Kraut told Reuters. The National Rifle Association, the most influential U.S. gun rights group, did not respond to requests for comment on the issue.
Everytown for Gun Safety, a group financed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg that pushes for stricter gun controls, says that making it easier to hold cops accountable for excessive force could help reduce gun violence. If cops knew they might be held financially liable for their actions, the thinking goes, they might be less inclined to escalate in encounters with armed civilians.