Shooting case will test limits of qualified immunity
In 2020, a trial court accepted the qualified immunity defense of Macon County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Anthony Momphard for the 2018 killing of Scott Knibbs.
“What happens in these cases is that the plaintiff almost always loses because of qualified immunity,” said Waynesville attorney Mark Melrose. “We knew that, but the whole idea was, can we put together a case where we have enough evidence to show that Momphard is not entitled to qualified immunity because this was so far out of bounds?”
Melrose and son Adam have done just that. Last week, an appellate court rejected parts of the 2020 judgement, meaning Momphard will likely be back in federal court, testing the bounds of qualified immunity for police officers who use excessive force.
The killing occurred as the result of a dispute between neighbors, according to details in multiple court documents as well as statements provided by Melrose.
Knibbs lived on Pheasant Drive, a one-lane, private dead-end road in rural Macon County, with only one house above him, a rental. Knibbs had been upset that the rental appeared to be a bit of a “party house” and that the tenants’ dog had disturbed him. He was also upset that people sometimes drove too fast in the roadway, both up and down.
Late in the evening of April 29, 2018, a partygoer mistakenly pulled into Knibbs’ driveway. Knibbs told them to leave, and kicked the bumper of the vehicle after accusing the occupants of the vehicle and the tenants in the house of drug activity.
Knibbs then placed several boards studded with nails into the roadway. As another partygoer left the residence later that night, they encountered the ersatz speedbumps on their way down, stopped their car, and called police.
Momphard, a military veteran and rookie deputy, was dispatched to the scene and likewise encountered the boards on his way up. He stopped, without deploying his emergency lights, and knocked on Knibbs’s door.
Although there was evidence that there were people inside — Knibbs, his wife, his son, his daughter and his grandson — Momphard received no response, so he continued his investigation and spoke to partygoers.
On his way back down, he again tried knocking on Knibbs’ door while identifying himself verbally as a sheriff’s deputy.
“Scott’s inside the bedroom, and the evidence is that he and his wife Missy heard that, and Scott said, ‘Anybody could say they’re sheriff’s department,’ which were the last words that he ever spoke,” Melrose said.
Toxicology reports would later show that Knibbs, who had no criminal record and graduated from basic law enforcement training at Southwestern Community College in the 1990s, had a blood alcohol level almost three times the legal limit for driving a car.
As Knibbs made his way from his bedroom toward the door with a shotgun, he racked a round into the chamber.
Standing near the porch by an adjacent set of windows, Momphard was looking for cover.
“Momphard hears that, gets his gun out and yells, ‘put it down, put it down’ and then moves in front of the windows,” Melrose said. “He turns his light on and says he sees Scott standing there with a gun and so he shoots and kills [Knibbs] through the window.”
District Attorney Ashley Welch recused herself from the case, as Macon County Sheriff Robbie Holland is a political supporter of hers and would likely be named if a civil suit were to be filed.
Henderson County District Attorney Greg Newman , who was later removed from his post due to misconduct unrelated to the Knibbs case, declined to bring criminal charges against Momphard, who was cleared by MCSO internal affairs and left the Macon County Sheriff’s Office on good terms not long after the incident.
Missy Knibbs retained Mark and his son Adam, who a year after the killing filed suit against Momphard and Holland in his official capacity as Sheriff, as well as MCSO’s liability insurance carrier and surety bond providers.
Claims against Momphard included violation of Knibbs’ Second, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, wrongful death and violations of the North Carolina Constitution. Holland was named for wrongful death and violations of the N.C. Constitution.
Forensic evidence presented at trial contradicted Momphard’s contention that Knibbs’ shotgun had been pointed at him. Stippling and wounds on Knibbs’ body suggested that Knibbs was holding the weapon against his chest, with the barrel pointed in a safe position, toward the ceiling.
On Nov. 5, 2020, U.S. District Judge Max O. Cogburn, Jr. granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgement per the standard of review, which states that “Summary judgment shall be granted ‘if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.’”
But there was a dispute over a material fact — whether or not Knibbs had pointed the shotgun at Momphard.
“So, we appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals,” Melrose said, “and they agreed with us and reversed the case, which is very unusual.”
A 2-1 majority of the appeals court denied Momphard’s qualified immunity claim because, according to the opinion, “ … Knibbs was only exercising his constitutional right to protect himself and his family by coming to the door with a loaded gun” and that there was no objective way for Knibbs to know who was actually on his front porch.
In his dissent, Judge Paul V. Niemeyer supported the qualified immunity claim because Knibbs knew the officer was there, came to the door with a shotgun, racked it, refused to drop it and refused to communicate with the person on the porch — whomever it may have been.
“The officer, reasonably believing he was about to be shot through the door, seeks safety from that position and, in doing so, sees [Knibbs] holding the gun,” Niemeyer wrote. “Not waiting to be shot, the officer fires his service pistol. Despite these facts, the majority rules that the officer is not entitled to qualified immunity because a jury could find that the officer shot Knibbs while he was only ‘possess[ing] a firearm in his own home in a non-threatening manner while investigating a nocturnal disturbance on his premises.’ This makes no sense to me.”
The Macon County Sheriff’s Office will retain its governmental immunity from suit, but the ruling means that the civil rights and wrongful death claims against Momphard can proceed, and the claims against MCSO’s surety bond against Momphard and Holland, up to $25,000, can proceed as well.
Adam Melrose said Knibbs’s family was relieved to hear of the reversal.
“I think that’s the best way to put it,” he said. “I think this is a case that a jury should decide. That’s sort of been the family’s viewpoint from the get-go, that it’s a case for a jury.”
And soon it will be — if the United States Supreme Court doesn’t get involved first.
“This case has gone from being entirely dismissed to going to trial,” said Mark. “It’ll be in federal court, in Asheville, at a time to be determined, and that will depend on if [the defense] appeals and petition the U.S. Supreme Court for cert.”
“Cert” is short for certiorari and means that the defense can ask SCOTUS to review the case.
More than 7,000 petitions for writs of certiorari are received by SCOTUS each year, but only about a hundred end up being granted. Usually, the court will only accept such requests if the case appears to have national significance, or if the case could resolve conflicting rulings from the several federal courts, or if the case appears to have value as a precedent.
If the defense decides not to petition or the petition is denied, Melrose thinks the case could go to trial within the next year.
If the petition is accepted, it will mean another year or so of legal limbo for the Momphard and Knibbs’ family while SCOTUS decides if the original claim of qualified immunity should stand or not.
Steven Andrew Bader, a Raleigh attorney who represented the defense on appeal, did not return multiple requests for comment from The Smoky Mountain News on whether or not he’d petition SCOTUS for cert.