People For the American Way Foundation

Biden Judge Rules that Family Can Proceed with Case Against Police Officer who Shot Father Five Times

Biden Judge Rules that Family Can Proceed with Case Against Police Officer who Shot Father Five Times

Judge Rachel Bloomekatz, nominated by President Biden to the Sixth Circuit court of appeals, wrote a 2-1 decision that affirmed the denial of qualified immunity to a police officer who shot a suicidal man in his dining room five times, therefore allowing a civil rights case against the officer to go forward. The April 2024 decision was in Heeter v Bowers.

 

What is the background of this case?

 Bill Heeter lived with his wife and three children in a home in Columbus, Ohio. Shortly before Thanksgiving in 2018, he told his wife that he was about to commit suicide with a pistol he had with him at the kitchen table. She managed to get the children upstairs and summon the police. Heeter had moved to the dining room and told police he would put the gun down if they left.

Several officers entered the house and most of what happened is recorded on videotape. One officer, Kenneth Bowers, fired “five rounds from his M-16 service rifle” into Heeter’s chest, apparently without provocation. While waiting for paramedics to arrive, Officer Bowers “did not administer first aid or otherwise try to help” Heeter, although he was then still alive and “struggling to breathe.” Heeter was pronounced dead at the hospital.

On behalf of Heeter’s estate and children, Karen Heeter later filed suit against Bowers.  The complaint contended that Bowers had violated the Constitution by using excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment when he shot Heeter five times. It also maintains that Bowers violated Heeter’s “Fourteenth Amendment right to adequate medical care while in police custody” because he “stood idle” after paramedics were called “rather than provide the emergency first aid Mr. Heeter obviously needed.”

In federal court, Bowers claimed he was entitled to qualified immunity against the Heeter family claims. The district court rejected Bowers’ argument, and also found that in light of genuine disputes of material fact, a jury could find for the family. Bowers appealed the qualified immunity issue to the Sixth Circuit.

 

How did Judge Bloomekatz and the Sixth Circuit Rule and Why is it Important?

 Judge Bloomekatz wrote a 2-1 decision that affirmed the lower court’s denial of qualified immunity so that the case against Bowers can proceed. The third judge on the panel, Judge Eric Clay, agreed that the case against Bowers could proceed in the district court, but dissented because he thought the appeals court did not have jurisdiction of the appeal.

After carefully reviewing the record and relevant case law, Judge Bloomekatz concluded that “any reasonable officer” in Bowers’ position would have “objectively and ‘clearly understood that he was under an affirmative duty to have refrained from’ using deadly force against Mr. Heeter.” Accordingly, Bowers was not entitled to qualified immunity on the excessive force claim.

Bloomekatz also found that Bowers should not get qualified immunity on the Fourteenth Amendment claim because a reasonable jury could find that “Bowers violated Mr. Heeter’s due process rights to adequate medical care in police custody.” She specifically rejected Bowers’ claim that, based on a misunderstanding of prior case law, Bowers had “no further duty” to help Heeter after calling paramedics.

Judge Bloomekatz’s opinion was obviously important to the Heeter family, who can now proceed to get their day in court and obtain justice against Officer Bowers for his misconduct. The ruling also establishes and reinforces precedent concerning review of claims of police misconduct, particularly in the Sixth Circuit, which includes Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee. In addition, it serves as a reminder of the importance of promptly confirming fair-minded judges like Judge Bloomekatz to our federal courts.