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When can the police legally use deadly force?

Since the recent uproar over the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., a spotlight has been on the actions of the officer who pulled his weapon and shot the unarmed teenager. Each time an officer draws their weapon, it implicates a very rigid set of rules and legal precedent that dictates when a gun can be fired, where it can be aimed, how many rounds should be squeezed off, and when the shooting should stop.

However, there is nothing rigid or simple about deciding whether an officer acted correctly in firing at a suspect. Several factors, including the officer's perception of a threat, the suspect's behavior, as well as the suspect's size, are all taken into account. It is beyond the average person's experience to comprehend how to react in a truly dangerous or life and death situation. Therefore, the courts agree that some leeway is necessary when evaluating the split-second decisions of an officer during incredibly stressful situations.

Police department regulations as well as court precedent dictate when an officer is allowed to move from mild coercion, such as issuing an order or grabbing a suspect, to stronger or even deadly actions. Generally, officers and citizens alike are allowed to respond with greater force after another does so, and the type of response - from a push, to a baton strike, to the use of pepper spray to a gunshot - rises as the threat grows. However, every action is necessitated by a single overarching imperative - the officer must believe that he or someone else is in imminent danger of serious physical injury or death. The officer must have an objectively reasonable fear of an imminent threat to his life or serious bodily injury before the officer would be justified in using deadly force. This "objectively reasonable" standard was set by the Supreme Court in 1989.

A St. Louis grand jury will be deciding whether the officer, Darren Wilson, should be charged with a crime in the shooting. The question of whether Officer Wilson's actions were objectively reasonable will be at the crux of the grand jury's decision. Currently, much remains in dispute about the shooting and the press has reported widely on the differing eyewitness accounts of what led up to the shooting. Therefore, it is likely that the physical evidence is going to play a huge role in the grand jury's decision.

Many questions still need to be answered. How badly injured was the officer? If Officer Wilson has no injuries, then it will be pretty clear cut that he should not have used his weapon. Was the officer dazed? Was Michael Brown on drugs? Does the officer have any physical injuries? A blow to the head by itself generally will not justify the use of deadly physical force unless there are other factors involved. Was Michael Brown fleeing or attacking? If a suspect is fleeing and is known to be unarmed and poses no danger of bodily harm to anyone, then an officer cannot fire shots to detain or subdue that person. What was the proximity of Michael Brown to Officer Wilson? If the physical evidence shows a close-up shooting and a struggle, that will favor the officer.

It will be interesting to analyze the legal issues as the physical evidence become available.

Source: New York Times

By Michael Jaccarino, Esq., of Aidala & Bertuna P.C.

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