The family of an unarmed Black man who was fatally shot by sheriff's deputies in North Carolina says he died because of the officers' “intentional and reckless disregard of his life,” according to a $30 million civil rights lawsuit filed Wednesday.
Andrew Brown Jr. was killed April 21 by Pasquotank County Sheriff’s deputies while they were serving drug-related warrants at his Elizabeth City home.
Several deputies surrounded Brown in his BMW before his car backed up and moved forward. They fired several shots at and into his vehicle. He was killed by a bullet to the back of his head.
Lawyers for the Brown family said the shooting was unjustified because Brown was trying to drive away — not toward the deputies.
“This lawsuit was easy to draft because of the facts in this case,” attorney Harry Daniels told reporters at a news conference. “Anybody can see that this was an unlawful killing.”
The filing is the latest in a string of federal civil rights lawsuits in the wake of high-profile police shootings of Black and brown people. Many have ended in settlements that often include money but specify there was no admission of guilt. Some end up in court where a jury can award massive settlements that are whittled down on appeal.
The family of George Floyd, who was killed in Minneapolis police custody last year, agreed to a $27 million settlement in March. In September, the city of Louisville, Kentucky, agreed to pay Breonna Taylor’s family $12 million and reform police practices.
The lawsuit in North Carolina was filed in a U.S. District Court by Brown’s paternal aunt, Lillie Brown Clark, who is the administrator for his estate. The suit says the 42-year-old Brown was the father of seven children.
Defendants include Pasquotank County Sheriff Tommy Wooten II and several deputies. Maj. Aaron Wallio told The Associated Press in an email that Wooten's office “has no comments on the lawsuit.”
Attorneys for Brown's family have repeatedly said that he posed no threat. Authorities have said he was using his car as a “deadly weapon" and caused deputies to believe it was necessary to use deadly force.
District Attorney Andrew Womble cleared the deputies in May. He said they were justified because Brown had struck a deputy with his car and nearly ran him over while ignoring commands to show his hands and get out of the vehicle.
The federal lawsuit is the latest fallout from the shooting, which has sent shockwaves through the small city in northeastern North Carolina.
Residents say they have gathered in protest for the past 85 days. One of the deputies who fired his gun at Brown's car has resigned. The FBI also launched a civil rights investigation into the death.
The shooting has also drawn scrutiny from outside law enforcement observers who say officers should not shoot at a vehicle when there is no other deadly threat besides the car.
Daniels, the Brown family attorney, said the lawsuit will prevail based on decisions made in the federal 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers North Carolina. He cited a ruling against police officers in South Carolina who continued to shoot at a man after his car had driven by them.
“They had no authority to shoot him,” Daniels said.
But Candace McCoy, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, questioned whether the Brown lawsuit would produce a large settlement or jury award.
“You could make a good case that, in this particular instance, somebody’s life was in danger,” McCoy said.
She added that the Floyd and Taylor cases were “light years different” from the Brown case in terms of police misconduct.
But McCoy said the overall effect of these civil rights lawsuits has led to more training and better practices. The lawsuits stem from a 1980 U.S. Supreme Court decision that allows people to sue departments over alleged constitutional violations.
“The effect of these lawsuits has been really important in reducing police use of force nationwide over the last 40 years,” she said.