Federal prosecutions not easy in police shootings
by Eric Tucker, Associated Press
August 26, 2014 03:04 PM | 781 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
This Aug. 20, 2014 file-pool photo shows Attorney General Eric Holder talking with Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol at Drake's Place Restaurant in Florrissant, Mo. As the Justice Department probes the police shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri, history suggests there’s no guarantee of a criminal prosecution, let alone a conviction. Federal authorities investigating possible civil rights violations in the Aug. 9 death of Michael Brown must meet a difficult standard of proof, a challenge that has complicated the path to prosecution in past police shootings. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File-Pool)
This Aug. 20, 2014 file-pool photo shows Attorney General Eric Holder talking with Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol at Drake's Place Restaurant in Florrissant, Mo. As the Justice Department probes the police shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri, history suggests there’s no guarantee of a criminal prosecution, let alone a conviction. Federal authorities investigating possible civil rights violations in the Aug. 9 death of Michael Brown must meet a difficult standard of proof, a challenge that has complicated the path to prosecution in past police shootings. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File-Pool)
slideshow
This Aug. 12, 2014 file photo shows protesters standing on a street in Ferguson, Mo. Racial tensions have run high in in the predominantly black city of Ferguson, following the shooting death by police of Michael Brown, 18, an unarmed black man. As the Justice Department probes the police shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri, history suggests there’s no guarantee of a criminal prosecution, let alone a conviction. Federal authorities investigating possible civil rights violations in the Aug. 9 death of Michael Brown must meet a difficult standard of proof, a challenge that has complicated the path to prosecution in past police shootings. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)
This Aug. 12, 2014 file photo shows protesters standing on a street in Ferguson, Mo. Racial tensions have run high in in the predominantly black city of Ferguson, following the shooting death by police of Michael Brown, 18, an unarmed black man. As the Justice Department probes the police shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri, history suggests there’s no guarantee of a criminal prosecution, let alone a conviction. Federal authorities investigating possible civil rights violations in the Aug. 9 death of Michael Brown must meet a difficult standard of proof, a challenge that has complicated the path to prosecution in past police shootings. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)
slideshow
In this Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014 file photo, a man holds a sign in front of a group of police officers to protest the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer a week earlier in Ferguson, Mo. Demonstrators are demanding justice for 18-year-old Brown, which they say can only be accomplished if Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson is charged and convicted for the shooting. Many also cite larger causes. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
In this Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014 file photo, a man holds a sign in front of a group of police officers to protest the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer a week earlier in Ferguson, Mo. Demonstrators are demanding justice for 18-year-old Brown, which they say can only be accomplished if Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson is charged and convicted for the shooting. Many also cite larger causes. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
slideshow
In this Friday, Aug. 15, 2014 file photo, protesters march down the middle of a street in front of a convenience store in Ferguson, Mo. that was looted and burned following the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer on Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014. Demonstrators are demanding justice for the 18-year-old Brown, which they say can only be accomplished if Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson is charged and convicted for the shooting. Many also cite larger causes. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
In this Friday, Aug. 15, 2014 file photo, protesters march down the middle of a street in front of a convenience store in Ferguson, Mo. that was looted and burned following the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer on Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014. Demonstrators are demanding justice for the 18-year-old Brown, which they say can only be accomplished if Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson is charged and convicted for the shooting. Many also cite larger causes. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
slideshow
In this July 20, 2014 file photo, Alvin Duplessis, 10, left, and Thomas McGriff, 5, foreground, hold signs with others from the Watson Memorial Teaching Ministries Church of New Orleans, at a rally in New Orleans held after the acquittal of George Zimmerman. The Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network organized "Justice for Trayvon" rallies nationwide to press for federal civil rights charges against Zimmerman, who was found not guilty in the shooting death of the unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)
In this July 20, 2014 file photo, Alvin Duplessis, 10, left, and Thomas McGriff, 5, foreground, hold signs with others from the Watson Memorial Teaching Ministries Church of New Orleans, at a rally in New Orleans held after the acquittal of George Zimmerman. The Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network organized "Justice for Trayvon" rallies nationwide to press for federal civil rights charges against Zimmerman, who was found not guilty in the shooting death of the unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)
slideshow

WASHINGTON (AP) — As the Justice Department probes the police shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old in Missouri, history suggests there's no guarantee of a criminal prosecution, let alone a conviction.

Federal authorities investigating possible civil rights violations in the Aug. 9 death of Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson must meet a difficult standard of proof, a challenge that has complicated the path to prosecution in past police shootings.

To build a case, they would need to establish that the police officer, Darren Wilson, not only acted with excessive force but also willfully violated Brown's constitutional rights. Though the Justice Department has a long history of targeting police misconduct, including after the 1992 beating of Rodney King, the high bar means that many high-profile police shootings that have raised public alarm never wound up in federal court.

"It's a very difficult standard to meet, and it really is satisfied only in the most egregious cases," said University of Michigan law professor Samuel Bagenstos, the former No. 2 official in the department's civil rights division. "Criminal enforcement of constitutional rights is not something that is easily pursued. It really requires building a case very carefully, very painstakingly."

Federal prosecutors, for instance, declined to charge New York police officers who killed the unarmed Sean Bell in a 50-shot barrage hours before his 2006 wedding. The four New York officers who in 1999 fired 41 shots at Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant, after they said they mistook his wallet for a gun were acquitted during a state trial and never faced federal prosecution for his killing.

More recently, the Justice Department did not charge either of the officers who shot and killed Miriam Carey, a 34-year-old woman who last year drove into a White House checkpoint and then led police on a car chase toward the U.S. Capitol.

"Accident, mistake, fear, negligence and bad judgment do not establish such a criminal violation," prosecutors wrote in explaining the decision.

In the Brown case, much will depend on the specific facts of the confrontation, which remain unclear. Police have said Wilson was pushed into his squad car and physically assaulted. Some witnesses have reported seeing Brown's arms up in the air before the shooting, an apparent sign of surrender. An autopsy paid for by Brown's family concluded that he was shot six times, twice in the head.

Investigators are working with a federal law that makes it illegal for officers to abuse their power by willfully depriving a person of his civil rights — in this case, the right to be free from an unlawful search and seizure. The statute does not require an officer to have been motivated by racial bias, but it does mean that he or she can not intentionally use more force than the law permits.

But the law is complicated by the fact that police officers are given latitude in their use of force, including in circumstances where an officer reasonably believed the force was necessary to capture a dangerous fleeing felon or had a good basis to fear his life or someone else's was in imminent danger, said Rachel Harmon, a University of Virginia law professor and former Justice Department civil rights prosecutor.

"In order to prove that there was a constitutional violation, the government would have to prove that from a reasonable officer's perspective, those circumstances didn't exist and that a reasonable officer wouldn't believe that they existed," Harmon said, noting that the Supreme Court has said courts should not apply the "20/20 vision of hindsight" in evaluating whether an officer used excessive force.

The civil rights statute in recent years has been used to prosecute law enforcement officers for a wide range of conduct, including sexual assault, robbery and shootings of unarmed civilians in New Orleans in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But because it can be difficult to prove that an officer didn't feel threatened during a confrontation, far more successful prosecutions involve victims who were assaulted while already in custody, such as Abner Louima, the Haitian immigrant who was sodomized with a broomstick inside a New York police precinct.

Dynamic confrontations, like the one alleged to have preceded the Ferguson shooting, are more difficult than cases involving an "inmate who is handcuffed, or in a cell who gets beaten by a corrections officer," said David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor in Miami.

In addition to the federal civil rights probe, a St. Louis County grand jury is hearing evidence about the death in its own investigation.

There is precedent for the Justice Department to become involved at the conclusion of a state case if federal officials feel justice hasn't been done. After four police officers were acquitted in a California state trial in the beating of Rodney King, the Justice Department filed federal civil rights charges and won convictions against two of them.

In the Ferguson case, dozens of FBI agents have canvassed the area to interview witnesses. Attorney General Eric Holder last week traveled there to help ease tensions and the department has obtained an additional federal autopsy to augment those carried out by local authorities and at the request of Brown's family.

"I don't know that it's an indication of there being something there (that points to guilt) any more than it is a response from Washington to show, 'We'll look at this. We'll find it out. Everyone please calm down,'" Weinstein said.



Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments
(0)
Comments-icon Post a Comment
No Comments Yet
*We welcome your comments on the stories and issues of the day and seek to provide a forum for the community to voice opinions. All comments are subject to moderator approval before being made visible on the website but are not edited. The use of profanity, obscene and vulgar language, hate speech, and racial slurs is strictly prohibited. Advertisements, promotions, spam, and links to outside websites will also be rejected. Please read our terms of service for full guides