A suspect's "mere possession" of a firearm does not authorize law enforcement officers to use deadly force, according to a recent opinion by a three-judge panel on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The March 30 opinion in the case of Knibbs v. Momphard stems from an April 2018 shooting in Franklin, North Carolina, where Macon County Deputy Anthony Wade Momphard Jr. was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing after he shot and killed a resident at a home he was investigating for a "nocturnal disturbance." At the time, then-District Attorney Greg Newman said the deputy was "justified in his use of force" because the officer heard someone "rack" a round in a shotgun.

Momphard claimed that when he shined his light into the home of now-deceased Michael Scott Knibbs, he found the resident pointing his shotgun on the other side of the window, though it is disputed whether the shotgun was actually pointed at the deputy.


"Knibbs never made any verbal threats or movements with the shotgun. He was shot simply because he stood in his living room holding a shotgun," witnesses presented in court filings. Momphard fired six shots from his service revolver and killed Knibbs, leading to his wife and daughter screaming in shock over his body.

The appeals court sided with the estate of Knibbs last month in saying they should be allowed to bring their case to a trial, arguing a resident has the right under the Fourth Amendment to come to their door with a firearm and that officers must adequately identify themselves to gain qualified immunity.

"Utilizing these principles, the question is whether it was clearly established in 2018 that an officer may not use deadly force against a homeowner who possesses a firearm inside his own home while investigating a nocturnal disturbance but does not aim the weapon at the officer or otherwise threaten him with imminent deadly harm," the court added.

Another primary question remains as to whether Knibbs ever pointed his gun at Momphard, as the judges cited this as the only aspect of the case that could have caused a reasonable officer to fear for his life. Additionally, the opinion cited a sheriff in Momphard's department who testified it is "not illegal to rack a shotgun."

The deputy claimed he shouted instructions at least three times for Knibbs to put the gun down during his nighttime investigation, though the court clarified that a mere verbal announcement without visual confirmation is not sufficient for an officer to gain qualified immunity. The deputy also approached the rural home during the night of the shooting without turning on his emergency lights and siren.

"Under the circumstances proffered by the Estate’s evidence, there was no lighting either inside or outside of Knibbs’ home. And it is undisputed that Deputy Momphard’s blue emergency lights were not operating," according to court records.

Newman, the district attorney who cleared Momphard, was officially removed from office on April 27, 2021, for reasons related to negligence. The removal marked the third instance of its kind in North Carolina's history.

Newman’s removal stemmed from a sexual assault case in which the victim’s family claimed he denied them the right to be heard in court. He was also disciplined in 2020 by the state bar for making a false statement in a child rape case, but the bar still allowed him to practice law.


The appeals court opinion only applies to the Fourth Circuit, which oversees appeals from Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia. If the case is not reevaluated at a lower court level, it can be appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Washington Examiner contacted the present Henderson County District Attorney Andrew Murray but did not receive a response.