A federal appeals court has ruled police can shoot hostages — even intentionally — if they fear for their lives or to stop a fleeing felon.
The case is more than just a legal footnote to Don Davis. The Georgia truck driver was shot nine times by troopers and deputies who were trying to stop a murder suspect holding Davis hostage in his truck.
While the shooting occurred in 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court just this week let stand a federal court ruling that police owe the hostage nothing for his medical bills or the lasting effects of the officer-inflicted gunshot wounds.
Oglethorpe County Sheriff’s deputies and Georgia State Patrol troopers were waiting on a dirt road outside a logging camp in August 2015.
Murder suspect Ryan Arnold was terrorizing the loggers and was planning his escape. Arnold had already shot his pregnant girlfriend and left her for dead before leading police on a chase. A trooper exchanged gunfire with the murder suspect before his getaway car ran out of gas at the logging camp.
Don Davis was getting ready to pull out with a full load of lumber when Arnold jumped in his truck with a rifle. “He fired a shot, and blew my side mirror out. I thought that was my head. But look, you know, I got lucky,” Davis said.
Davis picked up his phone and called 911. The kidnapper knew he was calling.
“He’s in my truck and we coming out of the woods now,” Davis calmly told the 911 operator. “He says that I won’t survive if I don’t get him out,” he added.
Dispatch records confirm police were told that the hostage was driving the logging truck with the killer threatening his life. “The subject you all are looking for is in the vehicle with him advising if he does not go where he tells him to he will kill him,” a dispatcher said over the radio minutes before the shooting.
Some officers testified they didn’t hear that message, while others confirmed they knew there was a hostage in the truck.
The 18-wheeler rolled toward the police cars that were blocking the road and started pushing them out of the way. Officers had taken cover behind the cars. The driver’s window of the logging truck was completely missing because the murder suspect had already shot it out while taking Davis hostage.
Two Georgia State Patrol troopers and a pair of Oglethorpe County deputies opened fire on the cab of the truck using shotguns, a pistol and a fully automatic tactical rifle.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation determined the gunfire was concentrated on the driver’s side of the cab, where Davis was driving.
“Shooting the driver, shooting who is driving that truck, will stop that truck,” GBI Special Agent in Charge Jesse Maddox told lawyers in a deposition.
The truck was riddled with more than 35 bullet holes.
Davis stopped the truck and jumped out after he was already hit eight times. “I said, ‘I got to get out of here,’ bailed out and had my hands up, and I still got shot,” Davis recalled.
A police officer shot the hostage again as he jumped out of the truck to get away from the kidnapper. The officer testified he didn’t realize the man jumping out was the hostage until he had already opened fire.
Davis was shot in his shoulder, hip and leg. His right hand was nearly blown off. Doctors were able to reconstruct Davis’ hand, but he lost two fingers.
Arnold had been hiding on the floorboards with a rifle trained at Davis’ head. The kidnapper suffered far-less-serious injuries. “I was placed into an ambulance on the scene and Mr. Davis was lifeflighted,” Arnold testified in a deposition from prison.
Arnold pleaded guilty to murder, kidnapping and other felonies.
A ‘tragic story’
Davis and wife Kathy sued the officers in federal court. Oglethorpe County and two sheriff’s deputies settled with the couple for $195,000 as part of a court-ordered mediation, according to a document obtained through a records request.
The rest of the case was thrown out by the U.S. District Court.
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