A federal judge this week ruled that the actions of two former Yellowstone County sheriff’s deputies who fatally shot a 28-year-old man near Huntley were unreasonable and that they are not entitled to protections under the law.
In a 33-page order filed on Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Susan Watters ruled for Loren Benjamin Simpson's estate saying that Yellowstone County Deputies Chris Rudolph and Jason Robinson are not entitled to qualified immunity on Simpson’s claim of excessive force.
Kevin Gillen, Yellowstone County deputy attorney, said Thursday the county disagrees with the court’s opinion and is considering whether to appeal it to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
“We believe we have appealable issues that come out of that ruling,” Gillen said.
Nathan Wagner, a Missoula lawyer who represents Simpson’s family, said on Thursday he was pleased with the ruling. “This is a big step in the right direction,” he said.
“From the outset, we have believed that qualified immunity was not applicable to the facts of this case because the officers’ conduct was so abhorrent,” Wagner said.
“The court has now agreed that the officers’ conduct was unreasonable and improper, and has refused to apply the doctrine of qualified immunity to protect them from the consequences of their actions," Wagner said.
The deputies shot and killed Simpson on Jan. 8, 2015, near Huntley. Simpson approached the deputies on White Buffalo Road while driving a Ford Explorer that had been reported stolen. The deputies fired at the vehicle with a shotgun and an AR-15 rifle, striking Simpson multiple times, including a fatal shot that hit him in the back of the head.
Deputies told investigators after the shooting that they felt threatened by the vehicle coming toward them. Both deputies resigned five days after the shooting.
Simpson’s family then sued Yellowstone County, the deputies and other county officials, alleging the deputies’ actions violated Simpson’s civil rights and alleging other claims. The case was moved from state District Court to federal district Court in October 2015.
The county has argued the deputies have qualified immunity from federal claims.
Qualified immunity provides a government employee sued for money damages under federal Constitutional claims with immunity if it was reasonable for the employee to believe his actions would not violate a clearly established legal or constitutional right.
Unless the ruling is appealed, the case would proceed on the civil rights claims.
No trial date has been set and other issues are pending, Wagner said.
Once the issues have been settled, Wagner said he expects there will be a round of negotiations supervised by a U.S. magistrate judge. If the case is not resolved, it will be set for trial, he said.
An earlier attempt to settle the case through mediation failed.
Wagner said he thought one of reasons for the unsuccessful mediation was that the county thought it had a good chance of succeeding on the issue of qualified immunity.
Wagner also said he expects that Watters’ ruling against the county will affect the negotiating positions of the parties.
Watters said a review of the facts, including a dash camera video, suggest that “it was not objectively reasonable for the deputies to believe that Simpson was accelerating and driving the Explorer toward Robinson or to keep firing at the Explorer after it passed.”
Watters also said, “In sum, the force used by the deputies was severe, the crime they suspected Simpson had committed was minor, the danger to the deputies was minimal, and the deputies could have used less intrusive means to effect the investigative stop.”
A jury, the judge continued, could conclude that Simpson “was not an immediate threat to the deputies or others at the time he was shot and killed, or even if he posed a threat, that the deputies’ response to that threat was unreasonable and violated Simpson’s Fourth Amendment rights.”
The Fourth Amendment protects against unlawful searches and seizures.