A Baltimore County Police officer who fired a shot that injured a 5-year-old boy in 2016 cannot be held liable for violating the child’s due process rights, according to Maryland’s highest court.

The state Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling in a filing on Tuesday, agreeing that Baltimore County Police Cpl. Royce Ruby could not be held liable for shooting 5-year-old Kodi Gaines after a standoff with police in the boy’s home in 2016.

Ruby shot the child’s mother, Korryn Gaines, a 23-year-old Randallstown hairstylist with a history of mental illness who had brandished a gun during a six-hour encounter with police. The officers had gone to Gaines’ apartment to serve arrest warrants on Gaines and her fiancé, Kareem Courtney. The warrant for Gaines was for one misdemeanor offense.

The high court ruled that Kodi Gaines, as an unintended target in the shooting, did not have his 14th Amendment rights violated. In order for police to violate those rights, the court ruled, the act would have to be a “brutal and inhumane abuse of power literally shocking to the conscience.” A shooting that is merely reckless or disturbing does not meet that standard, the court ruled.

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The opinion notes that Kodi Gaines’ appeal has a “long and tortured legal history.” It began eight years ago when Baltimore County Police officers knocked on the door to serve the warrants, according to the filing. The officers heard movement, but no one came to the door, so they kicked it open. Inside, they found Korryn Gaines sitting on the floor “with a pistol grip shotgun in her hands,” the filing said. Police called for backup, and a SWAT team, including Ruby, took positions outside the apartment.

Officers testified that Gaines vacillated between negotiating with the officers and then threatening them or cutting off contact. After about six hours, she entered the kitchen; Kodi’s father testified she did so to make her son a sandwich. She took the pistol with her; Ruby testified he thought she held it in a threatening manner and could have shot officers.

Ruby then fired a “head shot,” aiming high to avoid the child, who was in the kitchen. But the bullet passed through the corner of the kitchen’s drywall, hit Korryn Gaines in the back, ricocheted off the refrigerator, and struck her young child in the cheek. A few seconds later, Korryn Gaines fired her shotgun. Ruby then led a team of officers into the kitchen. He said that when he saw her beginning to aim the gun at him, he shot her three times.

The Gaines family and Kodi’s father sued Baltimore County for excessive force. In 2018, a jury agreed that Ruby used unreasonable force in shooting Gaines and awarded a total of $38 million in damages, with $32 million going to Kodi.

But a year later, Circuit Court Judge Mickey Norman, a former state trooper, threw out the jury’s verdict after Baltimore County requested a “judgement notwithstanding the verdict,” or JNOV, which basically asked the judge to set aside the jury’s verdict. Norman then ordered Baltimore County to pay Kodi a lower amount: $400,000 plus interest of $160,000, according to The Baltimore Sun. The ACLU called Norman’s actions “a textbook example of a jurist improperly usurping the role of the jury because he did not like or agree with his findings.”

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This week’s decision focused on the question of qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that protects police officers from legal liability unless they clearly violate a constitutional right that a reasonable person could have known.

The U.S. Supreme Court introduced the qualified immunity doctrine in the 1960s to protect officers from frivolous lawsuits. But many progressive and libertarian law organizations — including the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, the ACLU, and the Cato Institute — believe the doctrine protects officers from being held accountable for violating constitutional rights that any reasonable person could have known. The NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund wrote a letter to then-County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, questioning the use of force and the procedure for serving warrants. Kamenetz died in office two years after the shooting.

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger declined to bring charges against Ruby, calling the shooting “justified.” Many across the country disagreed, adding Gaines to a now-familiar list of Black citizens whose names are recited at vigils for dying too soon at the hands of police.

Erica Palmisano, a spokeswoman for Baltimore County, said the administration considers this matter resolved with this latest ruling. The current county executive, Johnny Olszewski Jr., has been in office since 2018.

“This administration has remained committed to doing right by the family of Korryn Gaines following this tragic incident,” she said. “After many years in court, the County believes this case is now resolved. Moving forward, we remain committed to continuing to do all we can to provide closure to our communities.”

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Gaines’ attorney, Leslie D. Hershfield, said he is disappointed by the decision and will be appealing to the U.S Supreme Court based on Kody Gaines’ 14th Amendment rights to substantive due process.

“The Baltimore County Police shot through a wall,” he said.

Qualified immunity is a “terrible policy,” said Clark M. Neily, senior vice president for legal studies at the Cato Institute. But as it is the law, he said, the high court made the sensible decision. The court looked for case law in Maryland and beyond that would allow them to declare that Kodi Gaines’ shooting “shocked the conscience.” Finding none, Neily said, it settled where the lower court landed, though the ruling makes clear that the justices took no pleasure in it. Whether it is morally wrong, he said, is a different question than whether it is legally wrong.

“That is a bread-and-butter qualified immunity analysis there,” Neily said of the ruling. “I don’t like it, but their application of the doctrine was legally correct in this case.”

Neily has been working with like-minded lawyers to convince lower courts that qualified immunity allows bad actors to shirk responsibility and ultimately offers citizens less protections. While there’s no appetite to look at the matter at the Supreme Court, he said, the lower courts and state courts seem somewhat chagrined to have to rule in favor of law enforcement in cases such as this one.

“I took a certain tone of sympathy in the ruling for Kodi, and perhaps an unstated wish that things had turned out differently,” Neily said. “I don’t think anyone was high-fiving each other after the opinion came out.”