ATLANTA (CN) - A police officer who shot and killed an unarmed man fleeing on foot from a traffic stop must face excessive force claims, a federal judge ruled.
Though several issues in the case are disputed, the ruling notes that the encounter began when Thomas Atzert Jr., an officer with the Atlanta Police Department, observed Maurice Hampton drive past a stop sign.
Hampton, a parolee driving without a valid license, got out of his car and ran when Atzert tried to stop him.
Atzert followed on foot and said there was a struggle when he caught up to Hampton. He claimed that he used his baton to try and subdue the larger Hampton, but that Hampton got ahold of the baton in the struggle and ran off.
"At this point, Atzert fired his weapon, striking Hampton in the back and killing him," U.S. District Judge Thomas Thrash wrote, citing Atzert's testimony.
But a woman who witnessed the altercation from the parking lot of a nearby club described the altercation differently, saying Hampton did not have a weapon in his hands when he was shot.
On behalf of the parolee's minor children, Rosa Hampton sued the city of Atlanta and Atzert based on this witness's version of the events
Judge Thrash granted the city summary judgment Friday but found that Atzert was not entitled to immunity.
Atlanta is off the hook because there is "no evidence or arguments to show that Atzert's use of deadly force was pursuant to a custom or policy of the city of Atlanta."
"Indeed, Atzert's testimony shows that he was given consistent training on the use of deadly force," Thrash added.
Viewing the facts of the case in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, however, the court said it could find that Trash used unreasonable force.
"It is possible that Atzert was not justified in using deadly force to prevent Hampton's escape," the 14-page ruling states. "At the time of the shooting, Hampton may have been unarmed and he was running away from Officer Atzert, suggesting that he did not pose an immediate threat to Officer Atzert. There is no indication that any members of the public were near Hampton. Although Hampton fled from the traffic stop that initiated the encounter, there is no indication that Atzert witnessed him committing a violent crime - Atzert only observed Hampton running a stop sign. Likewise, as noted above, it is not clear that Atzert attempted to stop Hampton from running away by warning him he was about to fire his weapon or by giving chase on foot, even though Atzert had already caught up to Hampton on foot during the encounter."