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April 30, 2015
  Kane v. Lewis -- Fourth Circuit
Headline: Fourth Circuit Knocks Out Wrongful Death Verdict Even After Police Officers Who Failed to "Knock-and-Announce" Kill Suspect

Areas of Law: Tort, Constitutional (4th Amendment)

Issue Presented: Whether police officers were responsible for shooting and killing a drug raid suspect when they failed to knock-and-announce their presence.

Brief Summary: On May 6, 2005, two SWAT teams executed a search warrant in Cambridge, Maryland. One minute later, Andrew Cornish was dead.

Police officers were investigating an anonymous tip of drug activity at 408 High Street in Cambridge, Maryland. As part of their investigation, police inspected trash bags in front of the residence and found trace amounts of marijuana and associated drug paraphernalia; officers then obtained a search warrant. Police officers who executed the search maintained they knocked and announced their presence twice before breaking down the door; however, neighbors stated they never heard the police knock or announce.

Once police were inside the home, they stated they yelled "Cambridge Police, search warrant." Officers attempted to kick in the door to the master bedroom, but failed. A moment later Andrew Cornish opened the door and came charging out, brandishing a knife. When he was three feet from Detective Lewis, the detective fired two shots, killing Cornish. Officers recovered the 15-inch knife, still in its sheath, and found two bags of marijuana on Cornish's person.

Cornish's father, Andrew Kane, sued on behalf of his son's estate alleging that police officers used excessive force and failed to knock-and-announce in violation of Cornish's constitutional rights. The jury found that Detective Lewis did not use excessive force in killing Cornish but that officers did fail to knock-and-announce; violating Cornish's constitutional rights. The jury awarded nominal damages and $250,000 in non-economic damages to Cornish's estate.

The officers appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, arguing that the noneconomic damages were inappropriate because Cornish's conduct was a superseding cause of his own death. In response, Kane argued that the jury had sufficient evidence to conclude that the absence of a knock and announcement made it reasonably foreseeable that a surprised Cornish would take self-defense action not knowing it was police officers who had entered his home.

The Fourth Circuit held that no reasonable jury could have found that the officers' knock-and-announce violation proximately caused Cornish's death. The court vacated the award of $250,000 in noneconomic damages and held that only nominal damages were appropriate for the knock-and-announce constitutional violation. The court found the evidence at trial was insufficient to establish that Cornish did not recognize the men as police officers, when the officers were wearing SWAT gear and shouting their identities. The court also held that Cornish must have known the men were police officers, and therefore, the illegal entry was not what caused Cornish's death. The court finally held the officers were not protected by qualified immunity for the knock-and-announce violation.

Judge Pamela Harris dissented. She agreed that a superseding cause would break the causal link between the knock-and-announce violation and Cornish's death. She also found that if Cornish knew the men were police officers and he attacked them, his conduct would be a superseding cause and the officers would have no liability for his death. However, Judge Harris found ample evidence from which a jury could conclude Cornish never realized that the men in his apartment were police. In Judge Harris' view, the facts demonstrated that Cornish had no reason to know the police were coming into his apartment at 4:30 in the morning; that the situation was so quick and confusing that Cornish never had an opportunity to identify the men as police; and that at trial the jury found the officers' testimony to be unreliable. This situation, Judge Harris wrote, "is exactly what the knock-and-announce rule is intended to prevent." Judge Harris would have affirmed the verdict of the trial court.

To read the full text of this opinion, please click here.

Panel: Judges Duncan, Agee and Harris

Argument Date: 12/10/2014

Date of Issued Opinion:

Docket Number:
Case No. 14-1027

Decided: Affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded by unpublished opinion. Judge Harris filed an opinion concurring in part, and dissenting in part.

Case Alert Author:
Douglas Sampson, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel: ARGUED: Victoria M. Shearer, KARPINSKI, COLARESI & KARP, P.A., Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellants. Terrell Roberts, ROBERTS & WOOD, Riverdale, Maryland, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Daniel Karp,KARPINSKI, COLARESI & KARP, P.A., Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellants.

Author of Opinion:
Judge Duncan.

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 04/30/2015 09:51 AM     4th Circuit  

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