In March 2015, a Lawrence County deputy shot and killed 39-year-old Shane Nathaniel Watkins after responding to a domestic call at the home where Watkins was residing with his mother. Watkins suffered from schizophrenia, and family members believed he was not a threat to police. Watkins was reportedly off his medication at the time of the shooting and was carrying a box cutter in one hand. The Decatur Daily newspaper sought records from the Lawrence County sheriff’s department regarding the circumstances of the shooting, but was repeatedly denied access. The newspaper then filed an action against Sheriff Gene Mitchell in Lawrence County Circuit Court seeking the information, including names and basic information of personnel involved in the shooting as well as dash-cam footage and 911 call recordings. The judge ordered the sheriff to release records related to the shooting, and the sheriff did release certain records, but the newspaper continues to argue that the sheriff is failing to comply with requirements of Alabama’s Open Records Act, which provides citizens with access to government records. Sheriff Mitchell now argues that the entire suit should be dismissed, asserting that he is not legally required to respond to any more of the newspaper’s demands regarding records related to the shooting of Watkins.
While the newspaper’s suit revolves around the legal ramifications of the public’s rights to access records related to government actions, the case also shines a light on the issue of excessive police force used against private citizens. Headlines in the past year have focused on potential racial implications involved in use of police force, but it is important to remember that excessive force and police brutality can show up in all kinds of situations and with all kinds of motives and involve all kinds of victims. Police officers are given quite a bit of authority in carrying out their difficult and dangerous jobs of enforcing our laws and protecting our people, but they do not have free reign to conduct themselves in whatever manner they see fit, and are constrained by the protections of the US Constitution and Alabama state law in their interactions with the public.
The primary protection citizens have against law enforcement overreaching is the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution in the Bill of Rights, which makes searches and seizures of individuals or their belongings illegal unless the search or seizure comports with constitutional mandates. Where government officials, including police officers, violate a person’s constitutional rights, that person can pursue a federal claim against the government official. Alabama state tort and criminal law also protect people from being harassed or physically harmed by a police officer where the police action is not warranted for the purposes of law enforcement, and provides a cause of action in some cases for the plaintiff to pursue a civil claim against the officer and/or police or sheriff’s department for injuries or for the loss of a loved one who died due to law enforcement action.
If you or a loved one has been injured as a result of excessive police action in Alabama, contact McPhillips Shinbaum in Montgomery at 334-262-1911.