Several leading civil rights groups have today weighed in on a lawsuit stemming from a 2011 SWAT team raid on a Framingham home that killed Eurie Stamps, an unarmed, innocent 68-year-old Black grandfather of 12, who was lying on the floor with his hands up. Framingham Police Officer Paul Duncan, who killed Stamps although he knew Stamps was not a target of the raid, has argued that he is immune from liability for violating Stamps’s constitutional rights. Although federal law prohibits officers from unreasonably aiming firearms at innocent people, and although that is precisely what Duncan did to Mr. Stamps, he contends that he is relieved from liability because the gunshot that killed Stamps was accidental.
A number of groups—the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, the Cato Institute, LatinoJustice, the New England Area Conference of the NAACP, and the National Bar Association—argue in a brief that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit should affirm a lower court’s denial of immunity to Officer Duncan. The brief argues that immunizing officers for unreasonable actions that cause accidental deaths would endanger innocent people, especially people in communities of color that are disproportionately subject to militarized police actions.
“Our laws should make police accountable when they endanger people’s lives, instead of allowing them to kill an innocent grandfather and then shrug their shoulders and chalk it up to an accident,” said Adriana Lafaille, Legal Fellow with the ACLU of Massachusetts. “It just can't be that police can point a gun at an innocent man who posed zero danger to them and yet, because the officer accidentally killed that man, our federal civil rights laws allow the police to walk away and give his family no relief.”
“It was absolutely necessary for the National Bar Association to join this brief, because the case exemplifies the need for policing reform,” said Benjamin L. Crump, President of the NBA, the oldest and largest national association of African-American attorneys and judges. “An officer wants the court to dismiss this case because he says that he didn't intend to shoot and kill the deceased. Once he violated Mr. Stamps’ constitutional rights, he began to violate the law. Immunity was not created to protect officers acting outside of the Constitution, and this officer needs to be held accountable.”
In their raid on Mr. Stamps’s home, officers believed that Mr. Stamps’s stepson and two associates had been selling drugs in the home. However, they also knew that Mr. Stamps lived there, that he was 68 years old, and they did not suspect Mr. Stamps of committing any crime or posing any threat.
Nonetheless, police broke through Mr. Stamps’s windows and doors and set off a “flash-bang” grenade to disorient anyone inside. Placed in a terrifying situation, Mr. Stamps got down on his stomach with his hands up. The lawsuit alleges that, while other officers moved through the home, Officer Duncan pointed an M-4 rifle at Mr. Stamps with its selector on “semi-automatic” rather than “safe,” and with his finger on the trigger. He accidentally fired, killing Mr. Stamps.
“The tragic death of Eurie Stamps reflects the real dangers from the appalling increase in extreme paramilitary practices engaged in by local police, which all too often result in tragedy,” said Jose Perez, LatinoJustice PRLDEF Deputy General Counsel. “We urge the First Circuit Court of Appeals to ensure that Latinos and other communities of color receive the full measure of the Fourth Amendment’s protection against excessive police force.”
“It would be fundamentally unjust and irrational to immunize police officers who engage in intentional, unreasonable conduct resulting in accidental tragedy,” said New England Area Conference NAACP President Juan Cofield. “The type of policing at issue in this case disproportionately endangers the lives of African Americans and Latinos, and it should not be protected or sanctioned.”
"All too often, government officials—including law enforcement agencies—get away with gross abuses of power because they invoke ‘qualified immunity,’” said Ilya Shapiro, Senior Fellow with the Cato Institute. “In the Fourth Amendment context, police typically only face the exclusion of evidence obtained in illegal searches, so the cost of their actions is borne by society as a whole rather than by the bad actors. Courts should not adopt an unprincipled and dangerous expansion of qualified immunity, so citizens can have real remedies for constitutional violations.”
“The officer who killed 68-year old Eurie Stamps in his home has still not been held accountable,” said Ezekiel Edwards, director of the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “As a nation, we are continually confronted with the nightmare that people of color face all too often: police injure, maim, or kill someone illegally, without consequence. We’re fighting alongside Eurie Stamps’ family to hold police responsible for their irresponsible and tragic use of deadly force.”
Once briefing concludes in the First Circuit, that court will hear oral argument and issue a decision on Duncan’s claim of qualified immunity. The plaintiffs are represented by Anthony Tarricone and Joseph Musacchio of Kreindler & Kreindler, LLP, as well as Anthony Fugate of Bardouille and Fugate.
Click here to read the brief.
Click here for more information about this brief in Stamps v. Town of Framingham.
For more information about the militarization of police nationwide, see the ACLU’s 2014 report “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing.”
For more information about the militarization of police in Massachusetts, see the ACLU of Massachusetts’s reports “Our Homes Are Not Battlefields: Reversing the Militarization & Federalization of Local Police in Massachusetts,” and “Cops in the Commonwealth: The Pitfalls of Militarized, Federalized Policing.”