The facts of Corbitt v. Vickers were sufficiently straightforward that they could be easily summed up.
On July 10, 2014, Vickers and other officers “participated in an operation to apprehend a criminal suspect, Christopher Barnett, whom [plaintiffs] ha[d] never met.” The operation
spilled over onto Plaintiff-Appellee Amy Corbitt’s (“Corbitt”) property after Barnett “wandered into the area.”
Why he was a suspect is unclear, which matters since it reflects on the possibility of a threat to the police. After all, if they were seeking Barnett because he failed to pay 100 parking tickets, it’s different than if he was a suspect in a violent murder.
Presumably, they had a description. That too goes unmentioned. How they knew he “wandered” anywhere, likewise, is unexplained. If they didn’t know him, how would they know? It’s possible someone told them, but there’s no finding that says so.
At the time of the incident, one adult (Damion Stewart) and six minor children—including Corbitt’s ten-year-old child SDC and two other children under the age of three—were outside in Corbitt’s yard. Corbitt and two other minors were inside. At some point after Vickers and the other officers entered Corbitt’s yard, the officers “demanded all persons in the area, including the children, to get down on the ground.” An officer handcuffed Stewart and placed a gun at his back. The children were outnumbered by the officers, and plaintiffs alleged at least four of the children (including SDC) “remained seized by deadly firearms.”
The police, for some reason, end up at Corbitt’s yard. Notably, it’s Corbitt’s yard, meaning Corbitt and his agent, Stewart, together with his guests, either gets to do with his property as he will or not, with the caveat that it’s not otherwise illegal. Merely being there when cops are copping is not illegal.
Nonetheless, the police entered the curtilege and made demands of random people who had complete entitlement to do as they pleased on their property, as it was wholly unrelated to whatever it was the cops were concerned with. But the cops had guns.
Assuming that the cops, like the Corbitts, had never met Barnett, it might be understandable that they would have some confusion about who he was. The greater the police ignorance, the wider their authority and more justifiable their acting out of ignorance. It’s ironic, but the law.
Then, “while the children were lying on the ground obeying [Vickers’s] orders . . . without necessity or any immediate threat or cause, [Vickers] discharged his firearm at the family pet named ‘Bruce’ twice.” The first shot missed, and Bruce (a dog) temporarily retreated under Corbitt’s home. No other efforts were made to restrain or subdue the dog, and no one appeared threatened by him. Eight or ten seconds after Vickers fired the first shot, the dog reappeared and was “approaching his owners,” when Vickers fired a second shot at the dog. This shot also missed the dog, but the bullet struck SDC in the back of his right knee. At the time of the shot, SDC was “readily viewable” and resting “approximately eighteen inches from . . . Vickers, lying on the ground, face down, pursuant to the orders of [Vickers].”
See dog, shoot dog. Come up with threat later. But if you shoot dog for no actual reason whatsoever, aim well enough so that the bullet doesn’t end up striking some unrelated unquestionably innocent kid, lying on the ground as commanded, Oh yeah, and Barnett?
Barnett (the fleeing suspect) “was visibly unarmed and readily compliant” with officers.
Amy Corbitt sued on behalf of her child, SDC, for being shot by Vickers. The district court rejected qualified immunity. The Eleventh Circuit, however, dug deeper.
Although we have held that SDC was already seized at the time of the shot, SDC is best described as an innocent bystander. And although the commands of the officers that SDC and the other children lie face down on the ground were actions directed at SDC and the other children, Corbitt does not claim that those actions violated SDC’s Fourth Amendment rights; rather, she claims that the action of Vickers firing at the dog and accidentally hitting SDC violated the Fourth Amendment. We hold that Vickers’s action of intentionally firing at the dog and unintentionally shooting SDC did not violate any clearly established Fourth Amendment rights.
This holding reveals one of the absurd quirks of qualified immunity law: the more bizarre, incompetent and downright stupid a cop’s action, the less likely there is to be caselaw explicitly informing the cop that he shouldn’t do it. The dissent sums it up succinctly.
The majority accurately points out that qualified immunity protects “all but the plainly incompetent.”  Because no competent officer would fire his weapon in the direction
of a nonthreatening pet while that pet was surrounded by children, qualified immunity should not protect Officer Vickers. Therefore, I dissent.
I join in the dissent.