The family of Kenneth Chamberlain Sr., a black, mentally ill man killed in his White Plains, N.Y., apartment during a police confrontation in 2011, had its civil rights claims of excessive force reinstated by the Second Circuit on Monday.
“Instead of treating Chamberlain as a critically ill patient, the officers acted as though he were a criminal suspect,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit said.
The decision, which overturned a trial court’s grant of immunity to the officers, comes the Monday after the May 25 death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd during another police incident. That incident has set off days of protests across the country, many of which have turned violent and resulted in clashes with police and National Guardsmen.
The U.S. Supreme Court will also soon decide whether to accept for review any of more than a dozen cases questioning the qualified immunity doctrine, which many legal commentators say gives too much protection to law enforcement officers and their departments from liability if they are accused of violating a person’s constitutional rights during the course of their work.
In the Second Circuit case, Chamberlain accidentally activated his Life Aid system around 5:00 AM on Nov. 19, 2011. The 68-year-old black, retired U.S. Marine lived alone and suffered from mental illness. Less than two hours later, a dozen police officers in tactical gear forced their way into his apartment and shot him to death.
Chamberlain’s death made nationwide news and was the subject of a 2019 film, “The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain.”
Several audio clips from the altercation recorded Chamberlain “lucidly, repeatedly, and emphatically” telling Life Aid operators and the officers at his door that he didn’t need assistance, according to the opinion from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
The efforts of the police officers to gain entry while armed with beanbag shotguns, riot shields, and pepper spray, agitated Chamberlain’s mental illness and caused him to experience flashbacks to his military service and other hallucinations, the court said.
Despite Chamberlain’s clearly rising anxiety, “the officers escalated the confrontation” with derisive comments and refusing to allow Chamberlain’s family members to speak with him, the court said.
From the hallway, “the officers, in swift succession, tased Chamberlain (unsuccessfully), fired several beanbag shots at him (largely ineffectively), and fired two shots at him with a handgun,” the court said. One bullet severed his spine, killing him, and the officers dragged Chamberlain from his apartment by his feet, it said.
The court overturned the trial court’s decision to dismiss the estate’s unlawful entry claim on the grounds of qualified immunity. It also reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the city and the officers on the issues of excessive force and supervisory liability.
The White Plains officer who fired the shots that killed Chamberlain, Anthony Carelli, was found not guilty of unlawful use of lethal force by a jury. The claims reviewed by the Second Circuit were lodged against other officers at the scene who responded to the call and were involved in the efforts to enter Chamberlain’s apartment and to physically subdue him.
Judges Robert D. Sack and Peter W. Hall formed a two-judge quorum. Judge Christoper F. Droney was originally assigned to the case but retired before its resolution, according to the opinion.
Qualified Immunity and the High Court
The doctrine of qualified immunity has received increased scrutiny over the past few years, with legal practitioners and advocates arguing that it allows police departments to evade accountability for bad behavior.
The Supreme Court has already passed on three cases that would have asked the court to address the scope or application of the doctrine. The justices are currently weighing several similar petitions for review.
The push to overturn, or at least revise, the doctrine has received support from across the political spectrum in part because most people, no matter their particular ideological bent, agree on the importance of the constitutional right to be free from excessive or lethal force at the hands of law enforcement, Jay Schweikert, with the libertarian Cato Institute, said Monday.
“The prioritization of certain constitutional rights may be different from organization to organization, but everyone who believes that those rights are important also agree that the vindication of those rights is also important,” he said.
Schweikert is a policy analyst with the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice. Cato has pressed the Supreme Court to address the qualified immunity issue.
The high court has ruled on the merits in about three dozen cases since first establishing the doctrine in the 1980s, and each case has increased the burdens the plaintiffs must overcome in order to advance their cases beyond a motion to dismiss, he said.
Litigating cases of excessive force is particularly difficult because the Supreme Court has also said that a trial court’s denial of qualified immunity is a collateral order subject to immediate appeal, Raffi Melkonian, a partner at Houston-based Wright Close & Barger LLP said Monday in a twitter thread.
That means that in a “best case scenario,” plaintiffs’ attorneys must be prepared for two to three years of appeals on the qualified immunity issue before they they have a chance to win an excessive force civil rights case, “which you likely won’t,” he said.
The process “requires a client of extraordinary bravery and force, and stubbornness of counsel and ability to withstand financial hits that most lawyers cannot or do not want to muster,” he said.
Only a minority of excessive force cases like Chamberlain’s proceed at all, Schweikert agreed.
The timing of Floyd’s death, subsequent protests, the Supreme Court’s docket, and the Second Circuit’s decision in Chamberlain’s case all amount to a “grim coincidence,” he said.
Declining to comment on whether justices may weigh in on the issue this term and, if so, how they might rule, Schweikert said the recent events surrounding Floyd’s death in Minnesota will at least hopefully put the issue higher on their radar in the coming weeks.
Schwiekert also said the pushback on the qualified immunity doctrine isn’t necessarily anti-police. Even police groups have agreed with Cato in friend of the court briefs that the doctrine can result in an overall disservice to the police community by eroding community trust in law enforcement, he said.
“When police are not held to account for their actions, it makes everyone’s job harder,” Schweikert said.
Newman Ferrara LLP represented Chamberlain’s estate.
Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker LLP represented the City of White Plains. Quinn Law Firm in White Plains represented Carelli.
The case is Chamberlain v. City of White Plains, 2d Cir., No. 16-03935, 6/1/20.