(InvestigateTV/Atlanta News First) - A federal appeals court has ruled police can shoot hostages — even intentionally — if they fear for their lives or to stop a fleeing felon.
The case is more than just a legal footnote to Don Davis. The Georgia truck driver was shot nine times by troopers and deputies who were trying to stop a murder suspect holding Davis hostage in his truck.
While the shooting occurred in 2015, in early May the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a federal court ruling that police owe the hostage nothing for his medical bills or the lasting effects of the officer-inflicted gunshot wounds.
Oglethorpe County Sheriff’s deputies and Georgia State Patrol troopers were waiting on a dirt road outside a logging camp in August 2015.
Murder suspect Ryan Arnold was terrorizing the loggers and was planning his escape. Arnold had already shot his pregnant girlfriend and left her for dead before leading police on a chase. A trooper exchanged gunfire with the murder suspect before his getaway car ran out of gas at the logging camp.
Don Davis was getting ready to pull out with a full load of lumber when Arnold jumped in his truck with a rifle.
“He fired a shot and blew my side mirror out,” Davis said. “I thought that was my head. But look, you know, I got lucky.”
Davis picked up his phone and called 911. The kidnapper knew he was calling.
“He’s in my truck and we coming out of the woods now,” Davis calmly told the 911 operator. “He says that I won’t survive if I don’t get him out,” he added.
Dispatch records confirm police were told that the hostage was driving the logging truck with the killer threatening his life.
“The subject you all are looking for is in the vehicle with him advising if he does not go where he tells him to he will kill him,” a dispatcher said over the radio minutes before the shooting.
Some officers testified they didn’t hear that message, while others confirmed they knew there was a hostage in the truck.
The 18-wheeler rolled toward the police cars that were blocking the road and started pushing them out of the way. Officers had taken cover behind the cars. The driver’s window of the logging truck was completely missing because the murder suspect had already shot it out while taking Davis hostage.
Two Georgia State Patrol troopers and a pair of Oglethorpe County deputies opened fire on the cab of the truck using shotguns, a pistol and a fully automatic tactical rifle.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation determined the gunfire was concentrated on the driver’s side of the cab, where Davis was driving.
“Shooting the driver, shooting who is driving that truck, will stop that truck,” GBI Special Agent in Charge Jesse Maddox told lawyers in a deposition.
The truck was riddled with more than 35 bullet holes.
Davis stopped the truck and jumped out after he was already hit eight times.
“I said, ‘I got to get out of here,’ bailed out and had my hands up, and I still got shot,” Davis recalled.
A police officer shot the hostage again as he jumped out of the truck to get away from the kidnapper. The officer testified he didn’t realize the man jumping out was the hostage until he had already opened fire.
Davis was shot in his shoulder, hip and leg. His right hand was nearly blown off. Doctors were able to reconstruct Davis’ hand, but he lost two fingers.
Arnold had been hiding on the floorboards with a rifle trained at Davis’ head. The kidnapper suffered far-less-serious injuries.
“I was placed into an ambulance on the scene and Mr. Davis was [taken by air-ambulance],” Arnold testified in a deposition from prison.
Arnold pleaded guilty to murder, kidnapping and other felonies.
A ‘tragic story’
Davis and wife Kathy sued the officers in federal court. Oglethorpe County and two sheriff’s deputies settled with the couple for $195,000 as part of a court-ordered mediation, according to a document obtained through a records request.
The rest of the case was thrown out by the U.S. District Court.
“Although Plaintiff was a hostage, as the driver of the log truck, he posed not only a threat of serious physical harm to the officers and others, but Plaintiff was also facilitating the escape of an armed and dangerous suspect,” the federal judge ruled. “Thus, Defendants’ use of deadly force when they fired at Plaintiff in the driver’s side of the truck was reasonable to protect themselves and others and prevent Arnold’s escape.”
Attorney Render Freeman didn’t give up on his clients and refused to take a penny of their settlement. He pressed forward with appeals to higher courts.
“We’re not aware of any case in the country that says that an officer may strategically choose on purpose to shoot the innocent hostage as a way of apprehending the criminal,” Freeman said.
The 11th Circuit US Court of Appeals in Atlanta also tossed the case by affirming the lower court’s ruling. The appeals panel said it was a “tragic story” but still a lawful one, largely because the officers are protected from civil liability under qualified immunity.
“To the extent Davis suggests that deadly force may never be used against an innocent victim, we can find no case asserting that proposition so categorically,” the 11th Circuit judges opined.
The judges determined, “Davis drove the truck toward seven officers gathered at the scene and showed no signs of stopping,” even though he was forced to do so at gunpoint. “Several of the officers opened fire on the cab of the truck, even though they allegedly knew Davis — an innocent hostage — was being forced to drive,” the appeals court panel added.
Ultimately the appeals court ruled the officers “made the difficult, but altogether reasonable, decision that Arnold and the logging truck had to be stopped — and, tragically, that meant stopping Davis, too.”
11th Circuit Judge Jill Pryor agreed with the rest of the panel’s decision, but she determined the trooper who shot the hostage when he jumped out went too far, ruling the “final shotgun blast violated Davis’s constitutional right to be free from the unreasonable use of deadly force,” but the judge said the trooper was still not liable because he was “entitled to qualified immunity.”
“As as long as none of us gets hurt, we’re making memories”
There are no dash or body-worn camera recordings of the shooting itself. One Georgia State Patrol dash camera recording was damaged. Another state cruiser didn’t have a camera. One deputy’s body cam was dislodged while other deputies weren’t wearing them at all.
However, one trooper’s dash camera was recording while that unit was responding to the scene. The two troopers in that patrol car were not involved in the shooting itself, but their dash camera did capture audio of a phone conversation between officers.
“We shot a hostage?” a trooper in the cruiser asks. The officer on the phone answered, “yeah.”
“Did we shoot him?” meaning the murder suspect. Again, the unidentified officer on the phone answered in the affirmative.
“Good,” the trooper in the cruiser responded. The other officer added, “we shot them both.”
The trooper in the cruiser can be heard saying, “hey, all’s well that ends well.” The officer on the phone added, “Amen.”
The trooper summed up the conversation. “As long as none of us gets hurt, we’re making memories.”
The Georgia State Patrol said the agency could not comment on the nearly eight-year-old shooting because the civil suit was still pending appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
However, Justices declined to hear the case, leaving the 11th Circuit ruling in place and ending the case.
The Oglethorpe County deputies commented through their attorney, Terry Williams of Williams & Waymire. Their full statement is below.
Full Statement from Terry Williams, attorney for deputies:
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