Featured photo: Joe Lopez kneels next to his son, Joseph Lopez’s grave at Lakeview Memorial Park. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

Editor’s note: This article describes footage from police body-worn cameras that depict the shooting of Joseph Lopez. View and read at own risk.

Joe Lopez let loose a small sigh of relief on Friday after a judge ruled in his favor in an ongoing civil lawsuit earlier this week.

On Wednesday, US District Judge Loretta Biggs released an order denying requests by former Greensboro police officer Matthew Hamilton and his attorneys to dismiss a civil lawsuit brought by Lopez after Hamilton shot and killed his son, Joseph Lopez, while he was unarmed in 2021.

Among the motions put forth by Hamilton and his team, which include attorney Amiel Rossabi, were requests for qualified immunity and public official immunity for Hamilton, as well as a stay on the case. All motions were denied by Biggs on Wednesday.

As Triad City Beat has reported, Lopez was shot and killed by former officer Matthew Hamilton on Nov. 19, 2021 after Lopez was located in the shed behind a home. Subsequent body-camera footage released last year found that Lopez was unarmed and Hamilton shot him after a police dog was sent into the shed to draw Lopez out.

Joseph Lopez was shot and killed by a Greensboro police officer on Nov. 19, 2021. (courtesy photo)

In June 2022, Lopez filed a civil rights lawsuit against both Matthew and the Greensboro Police Department. A separate criminal proceeding is also in progress after a grand jury indicted Matthew on June 6, 2022 with the crime of manslaughter.

In the order from Wednesday, Biggs responds to Hamilton’s request for qualified immunity, a doctrine in which “government officials are shielded from liability for civil damages so long as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights within the knowledge of a reasonable person.”

In many cases, qualified immunity is used by police officers who use excessive force to avoid civil damages. It does not apply to criminal charges or prosecutions.

In this case, Biggs noted that Hamilton is not entitled to qualified immunity because “shooting Lopez was a constitutional violation.”

Namely, Biggs notes that “it should be obvious to any reasonable officer that shooting an unarmed and unthreatening person who is not trying to flee immediately after releasing a police dog on him is a use of excessive force under the general prohibition against shooting unarmed, non-dangerous suspects.”

The second request by Hamilton involves the concept of public official immunity.

In North Carolina, public officials “engaged in the performance of governmental duties

involving the exercise of judgment and discretion” enjoy immunity from personal liability,” according to Biggs’ decision.

However, “public official immunity may be pierced if it is proven that an officer’s conduct was ‘corrupt or malicious’ or ‘outside of and beyond the scope of his duties,’” Biggs writes.

“Public official immunity is unavailable to officers who violate clearly established rights,” she states.

Lastly, Hamilton asked for a stay on the case because there is a criminal proceeding taking place at the same time. A stay is when a court order is paused so it doesn’t go into effect. In this request, Biggs declined Hamiton’s request, noting that “any stay imposed in this case that depends on the criminal case reaching some resolution will cause a substantial delay.”

‘I’m seeing some justice now’

Lopez, reached by phone on Friday, told TCB that after more than a year of legal back and forth in the civil suit, that he is starting to feel hopeful.

“I’m seeing some justice now,” he said.

While the pain of losing his son, who is buried at the cemetery where Lopez works as the manager, will never cease to exist, Lopez said that some of it has eased.

Lopez, who talked to his son on the phone everyday when he was alive, told TCB that he visits his son’s grave every morning when he gets to work to talk to him. After clocking out, he visits his son once again to say goodnight.

“It’s been the same routine since he was a baby and I continue doing it,” Lopez said.

Joe Lopez, father of Joseph Lopez, wipes away tears during a press conference on June 6 at the Beloved Community Center. (photo by Juliet Coen)

Reached by phone on Thursday, Lopez’s lawyer Flint Taylor — who also represented the family of Marcus Smith, who was hogtied by Greensboro police and died in 2018 — said they were “gratified” by Judge Biggs’ decision.

“We’re very happy that she’s cleared the way for us to be able to go forward now without any limitations to pursue the case and to get some modicum of justice for Joe Lopez and his family after this completely unjustified shooting by Hamilton,” Taylor said.

Now, Taylor said that they are waiting for the city, which is named in the civil suit, to produce written discovery and documents. After that, they’ll take testimony from Hamilton and some of the officers who were on the scene when Lopez was shot. They’ll also take evidence and deposition from supervisors and others in the police department, Taylor said. 

“Now the path is clear to proceed not only against the city for their practices and policies that underlie the shooting but against Hamilton himself,” Taylor said.

Attorney Flint Taylor speaks during a press conference about the killing of Joseph Lopez on June 6, 2022 at the Beloved Community Center. (photo by Juliet Coen)

When asked what Lopez is seeking in damages in the civil suit, Taylor said he hopes a settlement, similar to the Marcus Smith case, comes about. In February 2022, that case was settled for $2.57 million after nearly four years of litigation.

Still, Taylor acknowledges that no amount of money will bring loved ones back. Instead, justice looks like the city changing its policies and acknowledging Hamilton’s indictment on the criminal side.

“I would think in this case, that the city would make amends not only financially, but recognize as the state’s attorney has by indicting him, that this was egregious wrongdoing by an officer of the Greensboro Police Department,” Taylor said.

Currently, the city of Greensboro is paying for defense for Hamilton in both the civil and criminal case.

“It’s obviously extremely disturbing that these patterns of police use of excessive and deadly force continue not only in Greensboro, but across the country,” Taylor told TCB. “That’s why we have brought the city itself into the case as a defendant because they have failed to adequately address these issues.”

As TCB has reported, two people were killed by Greensboro police in June of this year.

Rossabi, who was reached by phone on Thursday, said that he had “no comment” for this piece.

Mayor Nancy Vaughan did not immediately respond to requests for comment for this piece.

City Attorney Chuck Watts told the News & Record on Wednesday that there have been no discussions regarding a settlement.

What else is in Judge Biggs’ order?

In response to the civil suit, Hamilton and his lawyers have argued that Lopez had intent to burglarize the resident or harm someone. However, in the order from Wednesday, Biggs stated that those arguments are “pure speculation” and that trespassing charges are consistently treated as “minor offenses.”

Biggs goes on to state that Hamilton’s arguments are “not persuasive” and that just because an officer can’t see someone that it “justifies shooting them” and that “the law of the Fourth Circuit requires much more than a fear of a possibility of a threat to permit use of deadly force.”

She also states that Hamilton shot Lopez immediately after ordering a police dog to attack him. “Even if Officer Hamilton had initially felt threatened by a man hiding in the back of a garage and refusing to come out, there was no reason to think that Lopez still posed a threat to officers while being attacked by a police dog,” Biggs notes.

Biggs also states that look at the pleadings, “the Court finds that Lopez is not alleged to have been actively resisting arrest or attempting to flee from officers. He is alleged to have been hiding

in the back of a garage and refusing to come out until it was ‘safe.’ There are no allegations that he said anything abusive to the officers, that he made any verbal threats, or that he took any actions suggestive of violence. Officers knew where he was and that he was not going anywhere.”

Read Judge Biggs’ full order here.

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