SALT LAKE CITY — A federal appeals court is being asked to revive a lawsuit filed by the family of a man shot and killed by a Salt Lake City police officer.
In recent arguments at the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, lawyers for the estate of Patrick Harmon Sr. urged a three-judge panel to reinstate the lawsuit that was struck down by a federal judge in Utah.
The judge "erroneously determined Mr. Harmon posed a serious threat," argued the Harmon family's attorney, Nicholas Lutz.
Harmon was stopped by police while riding his bicycle on State Street in 2017. Officers found Harmon had a warrant out for his arrest. As he was being handcuffed, Harmon broke free. What happened next is the subject of the family's lawsuit.
Police have claimed that Harmon had a knife and threatened officers when he was shot numerous times. The Harmon family contends that while a weapon was found nearby, the body camera footage did not show him holding it.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill found the shooting legally justified. The shooting was among those cited in Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality last year.
The Harmon family sued Salt Lake City police and Officer Clinton Fox, alleging racial bias (Harmon is Black and the officer is white), excessive force and a violation of Harmon's constitutional rights on the part of police. A judge dismissed some of the lawsuit, ruling that what officers did was "legally, objectively reasonable" but also allowing some claims of racial bias to go forward in state court.
The Harmon family asked the 10th Circuit Court to revive the lawsuit and have a jury decide.
"The inescapable inference from these allegations is Mr. Harmon did not pose a serious and immediate threat to the officers the moment he was killed," Lutz argued to the judges.
The police body camera video was a key part of the arguments, with both Lutz and Katherine Nichol, the attorney for Salt Lake City, calling the judges attention to it.
"As I saw the video, they never ordered him to drop anything and the only statement that was audible was the officer yelling 'I’ll f—ing shoot you,'" Judge Keith Kelly said in the hearing.
"That’s correct, your honor. That was the only command, as you can call it, that was issued to Mr. Harmon," Lutz replied.
But Salt Lake City's lawyer argued that the judges should consider what a "reasonable officer" would do in the circumstances.
"Officer Fox was faced with circumstances in which, during an arrest for a second-degree felony, Mr. Harmon begged the officers to let him go free," Nichol said. "He then broke free while being handcuffed, he pushed an officer to the ground as he fled, and then he stopped fleeing and turned back toward the officers with what reasonably appeared to be and was, in fact, a knife."
Throughout the roughly 30 minutes of arguments, the judges came across as somewhat skeptical of some of Salt Lake City's arguments.
"Even if he pushed him, I'll give you that. Three officers, a single guy on a bicycle. They get into a scuffle. They don’t tell him to drop anything. I couldn’t see anything in the video, and he says 'I'm going to f—ing shoot you,' and he does. Is that standard operating procedure in Salt Lake?" asked Judge Kelly.
"No, your honor," replied Nichol. "The Court’s inquiry is the totality of the circumstances, as the Court is well aware."
The 10th Circuit Court took the case under advisement with no timeline for when they might rule.