The many Americans who are strong supporters of both gun rights and the police are not often required to choose between the two. But in Lake County, Florida, police authority has now come into direct conflict with the right of the people to keep and bear arms.
The case in question dates back to July 15, 2012, when Lake County Deputy Richard Sylvester noticed a motorcycle speeding at around ninety miles per hour sometime after 1 a.m., and immediately pursued. After losing the motorcyclist on County Road 44, Deputy Sylvester radioed dispatch to report the situation and learned that the motorcyclist could have been the man sought by the Leesburg Police for an alleged assault and battery with a loaded firearm. With the help of his fellow deputies, Mr. Sylvester located the still hot motorcycle parked in front of apartment 114 of the Blueberry Hill apartment complex.
The license plate for both the motorcycle and the SUV parked beside it showed that both vehicles were registered to Jonathan Brown of Mount Dora, Florida. Knowing that the Blueberry Hill apartment complex did not have assigned parking, Deputy Sylvester did not necessarily consider the occupants of apartment 114 to be suspects. However, since the motorcyclist was believed to be armed, the officers took up tactical positions around the door and Deputy Sylvester knocked loudly three times.
The neighbor opened his door and, when asked where the man on the motorcycle lived, gestured in the general direction of apartment 114. Shortly after, an armed man opened the door to apartment 114 and Deputy Sylvester shot – and killed – the man. The armed man was not Jonathan Brown.
Twenty-six year old Andrew Scott was playing video games with his girlfriend when he heard loud banging on his door. The Second Amendment clearly protected Mr. Scott’s right to answer his door firearm in hand should it be needed in defense of himself and his household. According to Mr. Scott’s girlfriend, he pointed his gun toward the floor and backed away when he saw that it was the police. According to Deputy Sylvester, the gun was pointed at him as the as-of- then unidentified armed man seemed to be backing into a tactical shooting position.
Andrew Scott’s girlfriend and mother filed a civil case against Deputy Sylvester, claiming that he violated Andrew Scott’s Fourth Amendment right to be secure in his own home and person against unreasonable search and seizure. There was no warrant and the police did not announce themselves as police, yet the district court refused to hear the case. Instead, the court granted Deputy Sylvester qualified immunity. The court ruled that Deputy Sylvester could not have reasonably known that his actions violated any of Mr. Scott’s clearly defined rights. The plaintiffs pointed out the undisputed fact that none of the police announced that they were police when Deputy Sylvester knocked, and that when Andrew Scott opened the door, Deputy Sylvester shot without first attempting to communicate. However, since the court granted qualified immunity, Deputy Sylvester’s has not had to answer for his decisions that led up to Andrew Scott’s death.
The family of Andrew Scott did not give up, but began the appeal process that has dragged on through March 16, 2017, when the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit denied a request for the case to be reheard by the court. Was the court right to protect Richard Sylvester from having to defend his decisions and actions to the family of the man he killed?
While there was no warrant, Deputy Sylvester certainly had probable cause to believe that the fugitive motorcyclist was at least nearby. Though he did not necessarily suspect that the motorcyclist was in apartment 114, he did have a valid reason to knock on the door and ask questions. The fact that Deputy Sylvester misunderstood the neighbor’s directions to the suspect’s apartment may have played a significant role in his decision to shoot first. Perhaps he would have attempted to deescalate the situation had he not received what he considered confirmation that he had the right apartment. Perhaps he would not have seen Mr. Scott’s backing away in such an aggressive light. Most unfortunate of all, however, is that Andrew Scott likely would not have answered his door — gun in hand — had Deputy Sylvester announced that he was a police officer.
It seems clear that Deputy Sylvester should have announced his authority as a police officer. He made a mistake. Because of this, Andrew Scott had no reason to suspect that the man banging on his door at 1:30 a.m. was a police officer who only wanted to ask him some questions and not a violent would-be home invader. While it is most unlikely that Deputy Sylvester acted with the malicious intent to murder Mr. Scott, a life was still lost due to his mistake and he should be held accountable for it. However, the qualified immunity granted by the court protects him from a full investigation.
Police officers and other such officials certainly make obvious targets for harassment and false suits, and they should, to some degree, be protected. However, the power and authority granted to these officials demand a higher degree of accountability. That any officer should be able to kill someone and avoid investigation through criminal or civil suit is a danger to the basic human rights recognized in the Constitution.