Judge: Former N.C. officer denied immunity in civil rights lawsuit

Matthew Hamilton, the officer who was later fired and indicted for manslaughter in the death of Joseph Lopez, pursued "qualified immunity" from liability


By Nancy McLaughlin
News & Record, Greensboro, N.C.

GREENSBORO, N.C. — A U.S. District judge has denied a motion to dismiss a civil rights lawsuit against a former police officer accused of using excessive force in the November 2021 shooting death of a man found hiding in the back of a garage.

Matthew Hamilton, the officer who was later fired and indicted for manslaughter in the death of 29-year-old Joseph Lopez, pursued "qualified immunity" from liability.

Hamilton's attorney, Amiel Rossabi, said he was "not happy at all with the decision" but would not comment further.

A 15-year veteran, Hamilton was among officers responding to a "wanted person call" when he and his K-9 dog found Lopez in a storage shed behind a Cloverdale Drive address in north Greensboro. The resident of the home, according to police, requested help after an individual attempted to enter.

The city is also being sued over the incident in part "because of failing to properly train, supervise and discipline officers" and an "unconstitutional pattern and practice of using excessive and deadly force disproportionately against persons of color," according to the lawsuit.

City Attorney Chuck Watts said Wednesday that there have been no discussions regarding a settlement.

In a written pre-trial ruling to Hamilton's motion signed Wednesday , U.S. District Court Judge Loretta C. Biggs also denied a request by Hamilton to delay the civil case until after the criminal proceedings. Although Biggs' ruling was preliminary and the case has not been litigated, Taylor was especially happy with several lines in the ruling.

"Officer Hamilton does not identify any particular movement that may have been a threat," Biggs wrote. "Viewing the allegations in the light most favorable to plaintiff and drawing reasonable inferences in plaintiff's favor, the court infers that Lopez's movements were generally those of a man struggling with a police dog."

According to the lawsuit, officers arrived at the Cloverdale Drive residence on Nov. 19, 2021 and found Lopez in the backyard building. Hamilton opened the door of the room with his police dog on a leash, according to the suit, which is based on video footage.

It would be the second time in a week Lopez had been found on the property, but he had surrendered peacefully after talking with a Guilford County Sheriff's deputy. This time, law enforcement would find him sitting in a chair behind two couches.

"Greensboro police!" Hamilton can be heard shouting on police video from the night. "If you're in there, make yourself known!"

Lopez replied: "Yes, I'm here."

According to the lawsuit, Hamilton told Lopez to come out with his hands up or that he would send his dog inside.

Lopez, however, said he would come out when it was safe.

Hamilton then released the police dog into the room.

The lawsuit by Lopez's estate claims that seconds later, Hamilton walked through the door, drew his handgun and shot Lopez in the face.

Hamilton argued that since he "couldn't see Lopez," his "inability to determine whether this home intruder was armed would . . . cause a reasonable officer to fear that the suspect could pose an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others," Biggs wrote.

But at this point, Hamilton's own motion highlights "various factual allegations that support Lopez was not actually a threat," Biggs wrote.

When the lawsuit was filed in 2022, Rossabi said it misrepresented key details. Most notably, prior to the shooting, police were especially cautious because of an earlier interaction involving Lopez, who had been charged in the days before the incident with possession of a firearm by a felon and assault with a deadly weapon.

Because the K-9 hadn't signaled Lopez was under control, Hamilton continued to give commands and ultimately entered the shed, Rossabi has said. Additionally, Rossabi said Lopez held a "black object in his hand" that resembled a handgun and pointed it toward Hamilton.

Hamilton fired one shot, killing Lopez.

It was later discovered, however, that Lopez didn't have a gun.

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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