A Florida man has won his bid to sue two sheriff’s deputies for allegedly using excessive force when they entered his fenced property without permission and shot him seven times after he confronted them in the darkness outside his home.
The US Supreme Court on Monday refused without comment to take up the deputies’ appeal. The deputies had argued that the case should be thrown out of court because as law enforcement officers they are protected from liability by qualified immunity.
A federal judge and the 11thUS Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, ruling that the case could be presented to a jury to determine whether the deputies acted reasonably. The high court action allows the trial to move forward.
The case revolves around the April 2006 shooting of Robert Swofford in Altamonte Springs, Florida. Mr. Swofford was well known in the community; two years earlier he won $60 million in the Florida lottery.
The series of events leading to the shooting began at 2:28 a.m. when Seminole County Deputy Sheriff Donald Remus noticed two men attempting to “hotwire” a car in an apartment complex parking lot. When the men saw the deputy they fled in the direction of Swofford’s property.
The deputy called for backup and chased the men but lost sight of them down the road. With an infrared-equipped police helicopter on the way, Remus and K9 Deputy William Morris decided to use Morris’ dog to track the suspects. They followed the scent to Swofford’s place, pried some boards back on the six-foot tall wooden fence and entered his six-acre property to search for two Hispanic men.
Swofford was asleep in bed when he heard his dog barking. He took his gun, locked his house, and went outside to investigate. After checking his garage, the former US Army special forces captain knelt in some brush to watch for intruders. He had his gun out, but had not chambered a round in preparation for an immediate gun fight.
He watched as two men with flashlights came through his fence after prying the boards back. One of the men appeared to be wearing a uniform, but he saw no insignia. The men moved through the property toward Swofford’s position. Swofford shouted “Halt.” The flashlights swung toward him.
Details of the rest of the encounter are in dispute. Swofford says he was immediately shot, then he heard someone yell “Seminole County Sheriff’s Office,” followed by more shots.
The deputies say they each gave at least three verbal warnings to Swofford that they were deputies and that he must put his gun down. One deputy said Swofford was in the act of raising his gun to aim it at the deputies, the other said Swofford was already pointing his gun directly at them.
In their brief to the high court, the deputies said their decision to use lethal force against the home owner was justified because they had “at most one second to defend themselves from Swofford.”
Swofford says he received no verbal warning prior to being shot, that he never raised his gun above his waist, and that his weapon was always aimed toward the ground.
During the incident, one of the officer’s radios remained open. According to court documents, a radio-dispatch recording made at the time of the shooting contains “no recorded evidence of Remus or Morris identifying themselves to Mr. Swofford” before opening fire on him.
It is believed at least seven shots were fired by the deputies, five by Morris, two by Remus. Swofford never discharged his weapon.
Swofford received seven gunshot wounds during the incident and spent six weeks in the hospital.
The shooting isn’t the only questionable activity by the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office. In 2009, a federal judge imposed sanctions against the two deputies and the sheriff’s office for destroying evidence related to the Swofford shooting.
Although Swofford’s lawyer had requested that all evidence related to the shooting be preserved, a laptop computer, the radios, the guns, and the uniforms used on the night of the shooting were destroyed. In addition, all Seminole County Sheriff’s Office emails for the day of the shooting and the following year were destroyed.
In one email received after the shooting, a fellow law officer referred to Deputy Remus as the “Lotto killa.” The email was an apparent reference to the fact that the shooting victim, Swofford, had won the Florida lottery.
According to court documents, Remus replied: “I need to go to the sign shop and have them put that name on the side of the [squad] car.”
The judge found that Remus and Morris willfully contributed to the destruction of evidence in the case.
“Nothing other than bad faith can be inferred from the facts of this case,” US District Judge Mary Scriven said in her order. “This is not a circumstance of inadvertent destruction of evidence or negligence in the loss of material data,” she said. “Rather, it is a case of knowing and willful disregard for the clear obligation to preserve evidence.”
The judge added: “The bad faith is clear, and the prejudice to [Swofford] is substantial.”