Sevier County deputy who fired gun during panic attack can’t claim immunity, judge rules

A federal judge is refusing to grant legal immunity to a former Sevier County Sheriff’s Office deputy who pointed his gun at an unarmed woman, opened fire in a neighborhood and suffered a panic attack while armed.

U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer has turned aside a bid by former Sevier County Deputy Justin Johnson to shield himself via a doctrine known as qualified immunity.

Greer’s decision means the ex-deputy must face a jury for allegations he violated the constitutional rights of two unarmed Sevier County residents in the December 2016 incident, which was captured on Johnson’s body camera.

Greer is less sure, however, what to do about allegations of excessive force and constitutional violations the two citizens — Brian Mullinax and his wife, Tina Cody Mullinax — are leveling against two emergency medical technicians — Michael O’Conner and Blake Gregg — in the same incident.

“The court requests further briefing on this issue,” Greer wrote. “The court notes that two EMTs aided (Johnson) instead of helping the individual that originally called for assistance by their own volition and not out of a professional obligation.”

Body cam footage is key

Johnson was summoned to the Mullinaxes’ neighborhood on Sharp Road to help medical personnel dealing with a mentally ill woman who had fallen through the floor of a camper trailer. Brian Mullinax was inside his own home several yards away. Tina Mullinax was outside.

When Johnson saw Tina Mullinax walk past the camper trailer and into a field, he began chasing her — without explanation — and drew his gun as he ran, pointing it at her even after she stopped, Greer wrote.

“From Johnson’s body camera footage, it appears that he immediately aims his service weapon at Tina Mullinax, who was standing in the field staring at Johnson and did not appear to be physically or verbally threatening the officer,” the opinion stated.

“She did not attempt to reach into any pocket or act as if she could have been armed in any way,” it continued. “She neither attempted to approach Johnson nor to attack him. At this point, a reasonable officer could not reasonably believe that Tina Mullinax was a serious immediate threat enough to draw his service weapon.”

Johnson’s body cam footage, which provided Greer a view of the incident from his perspective, revealed Johnson pulled Tina Mullinax to the ground and struggled to handcuff her. Gregg decided to assist, holding her down.

Brian Mullinax emerged from his mobile home, shouting what an audio recording later revealed were the words, “I’m recording,” and a cellphone in his hand, a Knox News review has shown.

Without warning, Johnson opened fire — over the heads of Gregg and Tina Mullinax — toward the mobile home and nearby camper trailer, the video footage showed.

Johnson, his gun still in hand, began suffering a panic attack four minutes later. O’Connor coaxed the gun from Johnson, although he later returned the gun to Johnson once his breathing calmed, the footage revealed.

Couple charged for panic attack

Johnson wrote in a report that he fired seven shots after turning toward a noise behind him. His body camera showed he remained forward, facing Mullinax, the entire time, a Knox News investigation showed. He never mentioned the panic attack in his report.

The sheriff’s office, though, later charged the Mullinaxes with aggravated assault, a felony, and specifically accused the couple of causing Johnson’s panic attack. They remained behind bars, unable to post bond, for 42 days.

The couple was later acquitted in the case, and they filed suit.

Johnson is no longer with the sheriff’s office. He was forced to resign after USA TODAY Network – Tennessee journalists revealed that he failed to list his 2013 employment with the Johnson City Police Department on his Sevier County job application.

Records showed Johnson was fired from that agency for misconduct, including fanning his gun over an officer’s head and lying to his chief.

Greer is releasing the Sevier County government and its taxpayers from legal liability in the case, however, ruling Johnson essentially acted as a rogue cop.

Greer said he will issue a separate ruling on whether Gregg and O’Connor should be held to the same legal standard as law enforcement officers and, if so, whether their actions were “reasonable” under the circumstances.

Email Jamie Satterfield at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @jamiescoop. If you enjoy Jamie’s coverage, support strong local journalism by subscribing for full access to all our content on every platform.

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