The father of a man killed in an officer-involved shooting last year has filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Columbus, Lowndes County, Sheriff Eddie Hawkins and multiple officers from Columbus Police Department and Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office.
Austin Hines, 19, was fatally shot by area law enforcement officers on April 1, 2020, following a police chase involving city officers and county deputies that ended when Hines crashed his vehicle near the railroad tracks near Waterworks Road and Seventh Avenue North. Last month his father, Jason Hines of Lowndes County, filed the complaint in federal court in Aberdeen, though his attorney, Daniel Waide of Hattiesburg, said the suit initially began in Lowndes County Circuit Court last year.
Also named in the lawsuit are Lowndes Deputy Thomas Culpepper; CPD officers Jamarco Harris, Landon George and Ronald Crabtree; and officers “John Does 1-15.”
Hines alleges responsibility for his son’s death falls on the officers and claims they violated Austin Hines’ constitutional rights to due process and put him and other civilians in unnecessary danger during the pursuit and the shooting. It specifies that though LCSO reported in a press release at the time that Austin Hines was armed during the shooting, no body camera footage or other investigative reports have indicated he had a gun or threatened officers or civilians with it.
“The facts underlying this action represent a case of municipal ignorance and indifference to individuals that the City of Columbus and Lowndes County was charged to safeguard and protect,” the complaint says. “Justice requires not only the imposition of monetary and punitive damages payable to Plaintiff, but a declaration that the Defendants and its officers are responsible for what happened to Austin Hines.”
At the time of the shooting, authorities said a deputy attempted to pull Austin Hines over on Ridge Road for driving a stolen pickup, and Hines refused to yield, driving into the city where Columbus police officers became involved in the pursuit. The chase ended near the railroad tracks when he lost control of the vehicle and crashed. The complaint says Austin Hines had borrowed the pickup and did not realize the owner was looking for it.
Both reports at the time and the complaint say once Hines crashed, he ran to a deputy’s truck, which the complaint says had been left “unattended and running in the direction that Austin was running” and tried to drive away when officers opened fire. The complaint says multiple officers opened fire on the truck as Austin Hines was driving away and that they fired again “in excess of 30 shots from multiple angles and directions” when the truck came to a stop on the railroad tracks.
The complaint claims none of the officers reported being shot at or threatened by Austin Hines, according to the body camera footage and other investigative documents Waide has obtained thus far.
“Austin’s bad decisions did not warrant a death penalty, nor did the officers on scene have the right or authority to sentence Austin to death for Austin’s bad decisions,” the complaint says.
The complaint claims Austin Hines did not put anyone in danger, pointing out he was attempting to flee down the railroad track and was driving away from the officers. It also alleges officers did not attempt to de-escalate the situation “by providing verbal warnings or commands to Austin, before firing bullets at him” and argues officers should have called off the pursuit once it became dangerous to the public.
In an interview with The Dispatch Monday, Waide said the case has many “unanswered questions,” including the question of why LCSO reported Austin Hines was armed.
“Right now, we don’t have evidence to support the press release, and that’s kind of what this case is about right now, to see where that evidence is and if it’s there,” Waide said. “If it’s there, it changes everything, but right now we’ve got 10 body cameras and no evidence to support the press release.”
Sheriff Eddie Hawkins said his department stands by the press release.
“It’s unfortunate that situations like that occur,” he said. “Our attorneys are looking at the matter and dealing with it as it comes.”
Cleveland attorney Mary McKay Griffith, who is representing Lowndes County and LCSO in the suit, did not return calls to The Dispatch by press time. However, in court documents responding to the complaint, both she and City Attorney Jeff Turnage deny Jason Hines’ allegations and invoke qualified immunity, a legal principle that prevents law enforcement officers from being sued for actions taken in the commission
of their duties unless the plaintiff can prove their actions were unconstitutional.
“There has to be a violation of a clearly established constitutional right to get past it,” Turnage told The Dispatch.
“I feel like the city and its officers are defensible in their conduct, easily,” he added.
Conflict disclosure: Managing Editor Zack Plair took part in editing this article. He is currently in legal proceedings that involve the city of Columbus. Details are available in previous reporting.