Fourth Circuit: A Person has a Right to Come to the Door with a Firearm

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Fourth Circuit: A Person has a Right to Come to the Door with a Firearm

U.S.A. –-( On March 30, 2022, a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit published an opinion in the case of Knibbs v Momphard. The Court found for the Estate of Knibbs, which is suing Deputy Momphard of the Macon County Sheriff’s Department. It was a split opinion, for the Knibbs Estate.

Important precedents involving firearms and the Second Amendment are solidified by this opinion, which cites several previous cases.  The Constitutional Amendment primarily cited is the Fourth Amendment. However, the citation to the Fourth relies on the Second Amendment, which includes the possession of a firearm in the home for self-defense.

This author sees the important issues in this case, clarified by the March 30 opinion, as:

  1. The mere possession of a firearm by a homeowner is not sufficient to justify the use of deadly force by officers.
  2. There is a right to come to the door with a firearm.
  3. Officers must identify themselves as officers to gain qualified immunity.
  4. Mere verbal announcement, without visual confirmation, is not sufficient to gain qualified immunity.
  5. Sufficient precedent exists for officers to be aware of their duty in these situations.

A brief synopsis of the case and disputed events:

On April 29, 2018, there was a dispute between neighbors on Pheasant Drive, which was a private, one-lane dirt road without street lights. It was dark when Deputy Momphard answered the complaint. As part of the investigation, he attempted to contact the Knibbs family. He did not turn on his emergency lights or use his siren. There was a full moon.

As he knocked on the door and announced himself, he heard a shotgun being racked. He feared for his safety and moved onto an attached porch with windows. He shined his flashlight through one of the windows to see Knibbs, holding a shotgun. It is disputed whether the shotgun was pointed at Deputy Momphard or not. Momphard fired numerous shots, killing Knibbs.

The court cited the previous Cooper case, from the Fourth Circuit, decided in 2013. From the Opinion in Knibbs, p.25:

“Reacting to the sight of Cooper and his shotgun,” and without giving any warning or identifying themselves, the officers shot Cooper. 156. Accepting this evidence at the summary judgment stage, we held that the officers unreasonably feared for their safety because “the mere possession of a firearm by a suspect is not enough to permit the use of deadly force.”

They also cited the Hensley case, from the Fourth Circuit in 2017.   From the opinion, citing Hensley, p. 25:

Similarly, in Hensley, the plaintiff’s evidence at the summary judgment stage showed that Hensley held a handgun in his hand as he walked off his porch towards law enforcement officers. 876 F.3d at 578.The handgun was pointed down towards the ground during the entire incident, and Hensley “never raised the gun toward the Deputies or made any overt threats toward them.” Id.Nor did the deputies order him to stop, drop the gun, or “issue[] any type of warning” before shooting him.

Id.Under these facts as proffered by

26 Hensley––despite contrary factual assertions from the deputies––we reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the deputies on qualified immunity grounds because a jury could reasonably conclude that Hensley posed no reasonable danger to the deputies, and that they “shot Hensley simply because he had a possession of a firearm.” Id. at 583.5

The court cited The Betton case, from the Fourth Circuit in 2019. Officers have to give sufficient warning for suspects to reasonably believe they are officers.  As cited in the Knibbs case, p. 26:

Finally, in Betton, officers entered Betton’s home pursuant to a search warrant without announcing their presence. 942 F.3d at 188. Betton drew a handgun from his waistband and held it by his hip pointing down. Id. at 188–89. Once he entered the living room where the police officers were located––with his gun still pointing down––officers shot him without giving any instructions or warning. Id. at 189. We held that a reasonable juror could conclude that these actions constituted excessive force, noting that “Betton could not have known that members of law enforcement caused the noise that he heard on his property, because the officers had failed to announce their presence at any time before firing their weapons.”

In the Knibbs case opinion, published on March 30, 2022, the court found mere verbal announcement without visual confirmation, is not enough.  From p. 36 of the Knibbs opinion:

Utilizing these principles, the question is whether it was clearly established in April 2018 that an officer may not use deadly force against a homeowner who possesses a firearm inside his own home while investigating a nocturnal disturbance but does not aim the weapon at the officer or otherwise threaten him with imminent deadly harm. This is so even after the homeowner hears the officer announce himself––but cannot visually verify that to be true––and ignores commands to drop the weapon.

From the opinion, there is a right to come to the door with a firearm, p. 28:

Under the circumstances proffered by the Estate’s evidence, there was no lighting either inside or outside of Knibbs’ home. And it is undisputed that Deputy Momphard’s blue emergency lights were not operating. Against this backdrop, a reasonable officer would have recognized that it was unknown whether Knibbs could discern who was outside on his porch before answering the door.6 Such an officer would have also recognized that Knibbs, in turn, was within his lawful rights to arm himself to “investigat[e] a nocturnal disturbance on his own property.” Cooper, 735 F.3d at 160 (quoting Pena, 316 F. App’x at 312). That decision would have been, and in fact was, “perfectly reasonable,” and it “should have been apparent to [Deputy Momphard] at the time of the shooting” that Knibbs could do so. Id. (quoting Pena, 316 F. App’x at 312). After all, “the need for defense of self, family, and property is most acute” in one’s home. District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570, 628 (2008). Deputy Momphard readily acknowledged this premise at his deposition, admitting that Knibbs “ha[d] a right to come to the door with his firearm” and that “[i]t wouldn’t have been an issue” if Knibbs opened the door while holding his shotgun––“I would have had a casual conversation with him just as I had a million different times with a lot of other people.” J.A. 308–09.

On page 30 of the opinion, Sheriff Holland testified the mere racking of a shotgun is not a threat sufficient to justify deadly force.

SHERIFF HOLLAND: No…. It’s not illegal to rack a shotgun.”

According to the opinion, the primary material fact turns on whether Knibbs ever pointed his gun at Deputy Momphard. It is stated as the only thing in the case which could have caused a reasonable officer to fear for his life.

The court acknowledged shooting an individual for merely possessing a firearm in his own home, by a government agent,  violates the Fourth Amendment.

The law holds the court was compelled to view the case in the light most favorable to the appealing party, in a summary judgment case.  This means the court accepted the version of events put forward by the Knibbs estate. The Fourth Circuit ruled the case should be allowed to go to trial, and that Deputy Momphard did not have qualified immunity.

The court explored the concept that Deputy Momphard could have qualified immunity if he could show the constitutional right he violated was not “clearly established” at the time of the incident.

The Cooper, Hensley, and Betton cases supplied the precedent. Deputy Momphard should have been able to draw a logical conclusion. P. 42

.. the contours of Knibb’s constitutional right were “beyond debate” in April of 2018.

The opinion included this significant statement on page 45:

 We begin with the requirement that the officer not take an action that a reasonable man would know is contrary to his duty.

The primary dispute is whether a person, in his own home, merely holding a firearm, is a sufficient deadly threat to allow a police officer to shoot them, and be immune from lawsuit under qualified immunity.

An important part of this case is whether merely verbally announcing they are a law enforcement officer is sufficient to enable a homeowner to determine they are such. Anyone, including criminals, can easily announce themselves to be law enforcement officers.

This case only applies to the Fourth Circuit. Application can be made for an en banc panel, although such is less likely in the Fourth Circuit than in the Ninth Circuit. Absent a re-evaluation of the case en banc, the case can be appealed to the Supreme Court.

About Dean Weingarten:

Dean Weingarten has been a peace officer, a military officer, was on the University of Wisconsin Pistol Team for four years, and was first certified to teach firearms safety in 1973. He taught the Arizona concealed carry course for fifteen years until the goal of Constitutional Carry was attained. He has degrees in meteorology and mining engineering, and retired from the Department of Defense after a 30 year career in Army Research, Development, Testing, and Evaluation.

Dean Weingarten