The U.S. Supreme Court has overturned a lower court’s decision that opened the door for a lawsuit against two Tahlequah Police Department officers who five years ago shot and killed a suspect threatening them with a hammer.
The justices reversed a decision by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which said qualified immunity could not be given to Officer Josh Girdner, now a detective, and Lt. Brandon Vick in the 2016 fatal shooting of Dominic Rollice. The suspect was shot four times in his ex-wife’s garage on Aug. 12, 2016, after he brandished a claw hammer above his head.
According to reports, the shooting occurred after Joy Rollice called police to report her former husband was intoxicated and refusing to leave her home on East Shawnee Terrace. Officers arrived to find Rollice inside a garage and tried to calm him. But Rollice grabbed a claw hammer and raised it several times as if he intended to use it on the three officers.
Officers involved claimed Rollice told them “one of us is going to f**king die tonight." Video taken by officers' body cameras showed Rollice was told several times to drop the hammer, but he refused and appeared to grow agitated when Officer Chase Reed holstered his firearm and retrieved a Taser.
Vick and Girdner shot Rollice with their handguns, while Reed fired his Taser simultaneously. The State Medical Examiner said two bullets struck Rollice in the chest and two others struck his left hand. Reed began CPR on Rollice, while an ambulance responded to the scene, but he was pronounced dead a short time later.
Police Chief Nate King has said the shooting was investigated by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation and the District Attorney’s Office found no criminal charges. The Deadly Force Review Board cleared the officers of any policy violation. District Attorney Jack Thorp, who was first assistant district attorney at the time of the shooting, declined to file charges against the officers, and instead declared their actions were justified by state law.
Rollice’s estate sued the city and two of the officers, alleging that police had violated Rollice’s Fourth Amendment right, but U.S. District Judge Ronald A. White granted a summary judgment for the city, Vick and Girdner in September 2019. White ruled the officers had qualified immunity from civil liability in the shooting.
The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the judge’s ruling in December 2020, as a jury could conclude the officers “recklessly created” the situation to turn deadly when they backed Rollice into the garage and cornered him within reach of his tools.
The Supreme Court disagreed, saying the officers did not violate any clearly established law.
"As we have explained, qualified immunity protects ‘all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law,’" the justices said.
King said he is pleased the U.S. Supreme Court for hearing the case, and is grateful for their ruling.
"Officers Girdner and Lt. Vick acted bravely and decisively that fateful night," King said.