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Navy Airman Roger Fortson, 23, was shot and killed following an incident at his off-base residence / Hurlburt Field

Today, I want to share a deeply troubling story about Navy Airman Roger Fortson, whose life was tragically cut short due to police violence in his own home. This incident has reignited conversations about race, policing, and the significant challenges families face when seeking justice. To comprehend the difficulties Roger’s family might encounter in holding the officer accountable, it’s essential to understand the concept of reasonableness under the Fourth Amendment.

The Incident

Roger Fortson, a 23-year-old airman stationed at Hurlburt Field, worked as a gunner in the 4th Special Operations Squadron. On May 3, 2024, he was at his off-base apartment in Fort Walton Beach. Around 4:30 PM, the Okaloosa Sheriff’s Office received a call about a disturbance at Roger’s apartment complex. What exactly the disturbance entailed remains unclear.

Bodycam footage reveals a sheriff’s deputy arriving at Roger’s door and knocking, announcing himself as police. At that moment, Roger was on a FaceTime call with his girlfriend. Unaware of any disturbance and fearing for his safety, Roger retrieved his legally owned weapon. Upon opening the door, with his weapon pointed downward, the deputy immediately fired multiple shots, resulting in Roger’s death.

Roger’s family and supporters argue that his civil rights were violated and that the deputy used excessive force. Calls for justice have been loud and persistent, but achieving accountability might be more challenging than anticipated. This is not because Roger’s death isn’t tragic or wrong, but because the law often favors police officers in these situations. To understand this better, we can look at a similar case and the legal precedents involved.

A Parallel Case: Andrew Scott

In 2012, Andrew Scott, a 26-year-old pizza restaurant worker, faced a similar fate in Leesburg, Florida. After returning home from work, Andrew and his girlfriend were watching TV when they heard loud banging on the door. Grabbing his legally owned weapon, Andrew went to the door, where he was immediately shot multiple times by sheriff’s deputy Richard Sylvester. Andrew died from his injuries.

The sequence of events leading to the incident was bizarre. Earlier that night, Deputy Sylvester had unsuccessfully chased a speeding motorcycle. Later, an armed suspect on a motorcycle committed a crime five miles away. Without any concrete evidence, Sylvester assumed the two incidents were connected and went to an apartment complex where a motorcycle was found. Instead of verifying the suspect’s identity, the deputies went door-to-door, beginning with Andrew’s apartment.

Despite the fact that the deputies had no reason to believe Andrew was involved in any crime, they took tactical positions around his door. When Andrew opened it, Deputy Sylvester fired without announcing that they were police. No deputy was disciplined or charged. Andrew’s family filed a lawsuit, which was ultimately dismissed by the judge. The judge ruled that the deputies’ actions were lawful because Sylvester claimed he feared for his life, a defense that has been upheld in similar cases.

The Legal Battle: Section 1983 and Fourth Amendment Rights

To understand why Andrew Scott’s case was dismissed and why Roger Fortson’s family might face similar challenges, we need to delve into Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871. This law allows citizens to sue the police for violating constitutional rights. When suing under Section 1983, the plaintiff must prove that their rights were violated under the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The Fourth Amendment is critical for understanding the daily injustices that marginalized communities, especially Black individuals, face at the hands of law enforcement. Although it originally aimed to protect citizens from government overreach, the Supreme Court’s interpretations have increasingly favored police discretion in the name of public and officer safety.

In Andrew Scott’s case, his family argued that the police violated his Fourth Amendment rights by banging on his door without probable cause and using excessive force. Attorneys for both Scott’s family and the officer involved debated the legality of the police procedure known as “knock and talk.” This procedure allows police to approach a residence, knock, and ask questions or seek permission to enter without a warrant or probable cause. Scott’s family argued that the officers’ actions, which included pounding on the door in the middle of the night with weapons drawn, went beyond a standard knock and talk and should be deemed an unlawful entry. Conversely, the deputy’s attorneys maintained that it was a typical knock and talk situation. The judge ultimately sided with the deputy, stating that while entering the apartment could have constituted an unlawful entry under the Fourth Amendment, the deputy’s actions outside the apartment did not violate the amendment at that moment.

Andrew Scott’s family also claimed that the deputy violated Scott’s Fourth Amendment rights by using excessive force. The Supreme Court established guidelines for determining excessive force in the 1980s, notably in the 1989 case Graham v. Connor. This case instructed judges to give officers the benefit of the doubt and assess the reasonableness of force based on the officer’s perspective at the time of the incident, rather than with 20/20 hindsight. The court emphasized that force, even if it appears unreasonable in retrospect, can still be constitutional. Relying on the Graham decision, the judge in Scott’s case dismissed the excessive force claim, stating that although the incident was tragic, the deputy’s actions were not excessive because he feared for his life when he fired at Scott. The judge dismissed the entire case and that decision was later upheld on appeal.

Implications for Roger Fortson’s Case

Drawing parallels from Andrew Scott’s case, Roger Fortson’s family might face significant hurdles. They are likely to encounter arguments that the deputy’s actions were a lawful “knock and talk” and that the officer’s use of force was reasonable. Despite the apparent injustice, the legal framework established by the Supreme Court often shields officers from accountability in such scenarios.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly sided with law enforcement, interpreting the Fourth Amendment in ways that empower police while undermining citizens’ rights. This has facilitated practices leading to disproportionate targeting and violence against Black communities.

The Path to Justice

Roger Fortson’s case underscores the systemic issues within the legal system that make holding police accountable exceedingly difficult. While Roger’s death is undeniably tragic, the legal precedents and protections afforded to police officers present formidable obstacles for his family seeking justice.

Your Thoughts

I invite you to reflect on Roger Fortson’s story and consider the broader implications of these legal precedents. How do you feel knowing that Roger’s family might struggle to obtain justice? Have you or someone you know experienced similar challenges with law enforcement? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below. Your voice is vital in the ongoing conversation about race, policing, and justice in our society.

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