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US Appellate Court reverses dismissal in 2018 death of Scott Knibbs 

On March 30, 2022, a 2-1 majority of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit denied former Macon County Sheriff’s Deputy Anthony Momphard’s qualified immunity claim, stating, “ … Knibbs was only exercising his constitutional right to protect himself and his family by coming to the door with a loaded gun” and that there was no objective way for Knibbs to know who was actually on his front porch.”

The case, which is a result of the 2018 officer involved shooting that claimed the life of Macon County resident Scott Knibbs was dismissed by U.S. District Judge Max O. Cogburn, Jr. on Nov. 5, 2020, who granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgement per the standard of review by stating “Summary judgment shall be granted ‘if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.’”

The lawsuit was filed by Haywood County based attorney Mark Melrose on behalf Melissa Knibbs, wife of Michael Scott Knibbs. While portions of Judge Cogburn’s decision were upheld, parks of the judgement —specifically Momphard’s qualified immunity claim, were rejected. 

Qualified immunity is a type of legal immunity. “Qualified immunity balances two important interests—the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably.”

As first reported by Cory Vaillancourt with the Smoky Mountain News, US Appellate Court Judge Agee wrote the opinion, in which Judge Rushing joined. 

“In the course of responding to a dispute between neighbors just after midnight on April 30, 2018, Deputy Sheriff Anthony Momphard, Jr., of the Macon County, North Carolina, Sheriff’s Office fatally shot Michael Knibbs while Knibbs was standing inside his home holding a loaded shotgun. Knibbs’ widow, Melissa Knibbs, as personal representative of his Estate (“the Estate”), subsequently brought this action, asserting that Deputy Momphard used excessive force in violation of Knibbs’ Fourth Amendment rights, along with various related state law claims. The district court held that Deputy Momphard was entitled to qualified immunity from the Estate’s 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim and that the Estate’s state law claims against Deputy Momphard, Macon County Sheriff Robert Holland, and the insurance companies that issued the Sheriff’s Office a liability insurance policy and a surety bond (collectively, “Defendants”) necessarily failed. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm the district court’s judgment in part, vacate it in part, and remand for further proceedings.”

According to the opinion written by Judge Agee, the qualified immunity claim was rejected due to conflicting expert testimony. While the report of forensic pathology expert Dr. Jonathan Arden, M.D.,  proffered that it is more likely that Knibbs “was holding his shotgun left-handed with his right hand and arm across his chest in a safe stance with the barrel pointed upward, and the muzzle of the shotgun was not aimed at [Deputy] Momphard…” the defendant offered the opinion of crime-scene reconstruction expert Rod Englert, who opined that the forensic evidence is more consistent with Knibbs having pointed his shotgun at Deputy Momphard. He posited that the stippling that the medical examiner and Dr. Arden claimed to have observed on Knibbs’ right arm was not stippling at all; it was blood spatter. In his opinion, that pattern of blood spatter matched the pattern on Knibbs’ gun, which was “consistent with [Knibbs’] shotgun being in a raised horizontal position, below the upper chest wound, allowing the back-spatter to spray the right side of the shotgun” and the edge of his right forearm aligned with his thumb.”

Judge Agee wrote that Judge Cogburn issued a summary judgement for the entire case, however “Summary judgment is only appropriate “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”

“Viewing this case in the light most favorable to the Estate, there is sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find that Knibbs never pointed his weapon at Deputy Momphard or made any furtive movements, thereby rendering unjustified the deadly force used against Knibbs. The district court therefore erred in finding that there were no genuine issues of disputed material fact, and ultimately erred in finding that Deputy Momphard’s use of force was reasonable as a matter of law at this stage in the proceedings,” reads the court ruling. 

Judge Niemeyer wrote a dissenting opinion and stated that he supported the qualified immunity claim because of evidence that showed Knibbs knew the officer was there and heard the officer’s announcement identifying himself. 

“The record in this case contains, to be sure, a few disputed facts, but none of them is material to the legal determination of whether the law enforcement officer violated the deceased person’s legal rights or whether the officer is entitled to qualified immunity. The record shows the following,” wrote Judge Niemeyer.

“The officer, reasonably believing he was about to be shot through the door, seeks safety from that position and, in doing so, sees [Knibbs] holding the gun,” Niemeyer wrote. “Not waiting to be shot, the officer fires his service pistol. Despite these facts, the majority rules that the officer is not entitled to qualified immunity because a jury could find that the officer shot Knibbs while he was only ‘possess[ing] a firearm in his own home in a non-threatening manner while investigating a nocturnal disturbance on his premises.’ This makes no sense to me.”

The Appellate court’s ruling further explains the difficulty in deciding the case and acknowledges there is no exactly similar case for precedent to refer to. Additional questions arise due to the only plausible witness able to dispute Deputy Momphard’s testimony would be Knibbs, who is now deceased. According to court documents, additional questions arise regarding the legality of Knibbs possessing a firearm at all in response to Deputy Momphard’s presence on the night of the events. Toxicology reports from the autopsy show that Knibbs’  blood alcohol level was almost three times the legal limit for driving a car and according to North Carolina General Statue, “ It shall be unlawful for any person to have in his or her immediate possession and control any firearm, or other deadly weapon, while under the influence of intoxicating drink.”

Due to the March 30 ruling by the Appellate Court, the Macon County Sheriff’s Office will retain its governmental immunity from suit, but now the civil rights and wrongful death claims against Momphard can proceed, which means the claims against MCSO’s surety bond against Momphard and Macon County Sheriff Robert Holland, up to $25,000, can also move forward to trial. 

A trial date will be determined at a later date, however it is possible for the case to be moved to the United States Supreme Court entirely, depending on if the defense petitions the case to the Supreme Court. 

In his dissent of the ruling, Judge Niemeyer wrote that the Supreme Court has been clear in past rulings involving qualified immunity. 

“Over the years, the Supreme Court has repeatedly admonished courts of appeals to

recognize police officers’ immunity. And only recently, perhaps in some exasperation, it again reminded courts of appeals of this fact. In City of Tahlequah, the Court reiterated that “qualified immunity protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law” and noted that it has “repeatedly told courts not to define clearly established law at too high a level of generality. It is not enough that a rule be suggested by then-existing precedent; the rule’s contours must be so well defined that it is clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted.”

To review the 69 page 2-1 court ruling in its entirety, click here. 

  

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