A Maryland deputy who mistook his pistol for a Taser can be sued for shooting an unarmed, fleeing suspect, a federal appeals court held on Thursday.
The full 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said a jury could find that Deputy Sheriff Robert Purnell’s mistake was “objectively unreasonable” because he should have realized he had grabbed a .40 caliber Glock handgun and that the man he was chasing, Frederick Henry, was not a threat.
The 38-ounce Glock was nearly twice as heavy as the stun gun, 1.5 inches longer and black in color. The Taser, with yellow markings on the back and sides, also had a thumb safety that Purnell would have had to flip to arm the weapon, while the Glock had no safety, the court added.
“There was no evidence indicating that Purnell did not have the split second he would have needed to at least glance at the weapon he was holding to verify that it was indeed his Taser and not his Glock,” Judge Roger L. Gregory wrote for the appeals court’s majority.
There was “nothing to suggest Henry posed any threat whatsoever — no menacing conduct and no violent criminal history,” Gregory added. “In sum, a reasonable officer in these circumstances would have had no grounds for believing Henry was armed or dangerous.”
Gregory was the sole dissenter last September, when a three-judge panel of the same court found Purnell was immune from liability under the federal civil-rights law — in part because he had limited experience with the Taser and had received little training in its use. The panel had voted 2 to 1 to affirm a U.S. District Court judge in Baltimore, who said Purnell made an “honest” mistake.