RALEIGH (AP) Relatives of a North Carolina man fatally shot by a deputy can proceed with a wrongful death lawsuit after a judge found sufficient evidence that his constitutional rights were violated.
U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle rejected a request by the Harnett County Sheriff’s Office to dismiss the case in a ruling issued July 12. Boyle also said other plaintiffs alleging separate instances of excessive force by deputies have enough evidence to proceed with their claims. A pretrial hearing on the civil case has been scheduled for September.
Boyle wrote that former Deputy Nicholas Kehagias appears to have violated John David Livingston’s rights by entering his home without a warrant and using excessive force during a 2015 scuffle that ended with the fatal shooting.
“In the absence of a valid justification for his warrantless entry, Kehagias’ seizure of Livingston violated his constitutional rights as did any subsequent use of force,” Boyle wrote.
Further, Boyle said that even if deputies believed Livingston was committing a crime by obstructing their search for another man, the excessive force wasn’t justified.
“First, the severity of the crime at issue, a misdemeanor, was minor,” the judge wrote. “Second, there is no indication in plaintiffs’ evidence that Livingston posed an immediate threat to Kehagias.”
Boyle’s preliminary ruling was limited to the defendants’ request to throw out the lawsuit, so the case must still be tried or settled at a later date.
Plaintiffs argue that deputies went to Livingston’s house in November 2015 without a warrant while looking for the other man and provoked an altercation. Livingston was brought to the ground and pepper sprayed during a physical scuffle that spilled onto his porch, where he was shot and killed, according to court documents.
Authorities and defense attorneys have previously said Livingston was intoxicated and had seized Kehagias’ stun gun, causing the officer to fear for his life. A state toxicology report found that Livingston had enough alcohol in his system to be legally impaired and that he also tested positive for cocaine, according to court documents.
A grand jury declined to indict Kehagias, who has resigned from the sheriff’s office.
An attorney for the defendants, Dan Hartzog, declined to comment July 16 on Boyle’s ruling.
Livingston’s mother and other plaintiffs argue that Livingston’s death was the culmination of a pattern of excessive force by Kehagias and other deputies. The defendants say the other plaintiffs provoked deputies on separate occasions and deny a pattern of excessive force.
However, Boyle ruled plaintiffs can proceed with claims against the sheriff’s office alleging faulty training or procedures.
The legal case also raised questions over the balance between transparency and secrecy in criminal investigations. Earlier this year, Boyle ruled to publicly disclose investigative files in the court record after a request from several news outlets including The Associated Press. The sheriff’s office had argued it was following state law by filing confidential investigative records under seal as part of the civil case.