Federal appeals court upholds dismissal of lawsuit in fatal shooting by Iowa deputy sheriff

by Rox Laird | May 15, 2017

A federal appeals court Monday upheld the summary-judgment dismissal of an Iowa family’s civil lawsuit following the shooting death of Robert Michael Dooley by a Van Buren County sheriff’s deputy.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit acknowledged that while the incident might have been avoided had it been handled differently, the officer’s actions did not violate the shooting victim’s constitutional rights.

Two Van Buren deputies were dispatched following reports of a man walking along Highway 2 toward Cantril, waving obscene hand gestures at passing motorists. An American flag was hung upside-down from the trunk of his car. He was wearing a military-style uniform. And he was carrying what appeared to be a rifle slung over his right shoulder with the muzzle pointed toward the ground and his right hand placed on or near the barrel.

When the deputies pulled up behind Dooley’s car, Deputy Sheriff Jon Tharp shouted at the man – later identified as Dooley – to “Drop the gun! Drop it!”

According to the trial court, a video recording from the deputies’ dashboard camera shows Dooley moving the rifle in an “arc-like” motion. In response, Tharp fired a single shot that struck Dooley in the head, killing him instantly.

The Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation said no criminal charges would be filed because Tharp acted in self-defense. Dooley’s estate and family filed a civil suit in state court, which was removed to federal court, alleging that Tharp used excessive force in violation of Dooley’s Fourth Amendment rights.

Chief Magistrate Judge Helen C. Adams granted Tharp’s motion for summary judgement, concluding the deputy was entitled to qualified immunity because his use of force was “objectively reasonable.”

The Eighth Circuit panel upheld the trial court ruling in a decision written by Judge Roger Wollman joined by Judges Diana Murphy and Arlen Beam.

The court said there was “a genuine issue of fact whether Tharp used excessive force.” Dooley’s weapon turned out to be a pellet gun, and his movements suggested he was attempting to follow the deputy’s order to drop the gun rather than point it at the officers.

A frame-by-frame review of the video “appears to contradict the officers’ description,” Wollman wrote.

The video “shows Dooley turning to face the deputies and using his right hand to maneuver the rifle. It also shows that Dooley did not place his right hand near the trigger and did not place his left hand on the rifle. It shows that at the moment of the bullet’s impact, Dooley’s arms were crossed over his chest and the muzzle of the rifle was pointed toward the sky.”

But the court said law-enforcement officers do not have the opportunity to see in frame-by-frame slow motion what to them appears to be a life-threating situation, and Tharp’s action was “objectively reasonable” based on his perception that Dooley posed a threat of serious physical harm.

While “less confrontational approach to the situation facing them . . . might have prevented this needless loss of life,” the court said Dooley’s actions coupled with Tharp’s belief that Dooley was aiming his weapon at the officers “ultimately resulted in his death.”




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On Brief: Iowa’s Appellate Blog is devoted to appellate litigation with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.


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