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Alton Sterling Shot by Police

Our firm has successfully pursued cases against police departments, city agencies, and police officers in matters involving police brutality or excessive force and are frequently contacted to evaluate these types of cases. When these cases appear in the news, Attorney Page Pate is often contacted by media outlets to provide an analysis.

In this case, police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, shot an unarmed individual, Alton Sterling, at close range, killing him.  Officers claimed he was reaching for a gun when they shot him. Mr. Sterling’s children have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the City of Baton Rouge Police Department and despite the fact criminal charges were not brought against the officer, the officer has been fired from the department a year after the incident.

CNN interviewed Page Pate regarding the lack of criminal charges against the officer, the firing of the officer and the lawsuit against the City. Page’s comment on charges not being brought against the officer were “Well, he got away with murder. I don’t know how else you look at that. I understand that he was not prosecuted on the federal level or the state level. I understand that the prosecutor said, “We couldn’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he wasn’t in fear for his life.” That’s not the way you’re supposed to analyze these cases. The fact that he didn’t immediately comply doesn’t mean he should die. And that mentality, that mindset that, “I’m gonna pull out a firearm, and either you do exactly what I say or I’m gonna shoot you and kill you in the street,” that’s not how these encounters should occur.”

When questioned about how the recent firing of the officer might affect the civil case against the police department, Page says that he thinks it will help the civil case and says “the standard’s gonna be a little bit different in a civil case. It’s not proof beyond a reasonable doubt that he intended to kill Alton Sterling. The standard’s gonna be, “Did he violate his constitutional rights? Did he act negligently?” And I think the fact that he was fired from his job for not following the proper protocols and policies that they had in place is good evidence to support the civil case.”

Page further explains that it can be difficult to prosecute police officers in these cases because “…the Supreme Court gives a lot of protection to police officers. And so the standard that prosecutors use to evaluate those cases is different than if you or I were involved in a shooting incident. They’re going to determine, in hindsight, whether a reasonable officer in that same position could have found it necessary to use force, deadly force in this situation. Not in hindsight, not knowing what we know now, not all of the facts and the circumstances, but put yourself in that cop’s shoes. And was it unreasonable to fire your gun at that point? And that’s the legal standard. And what really bugs me and what’s very different, again, from you or I, or any other citizen, is they’re making this evaluation before they indict the person. They’re making this evaluation before a jury trial. That’s not appropriate. This kinda decision is up to a jury.”

The wrongful death lawsuit against the City of Baton Rouge Police Department is currently scheduled for trial in April, 2020.

TRANSCRIPT:

Christi: Page Pate, CNN Legal Analyst, with us now. I saw you shaking your head through most of that.

Page: Well, he got away with murder. I don’t know how else you look at that. I understand that he was not prosecuted on the federal level or the state level. I understand that the prosecutor said, “We couldn’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he wasn’t in fear for his life.” That’s not the way you’re supposed to analyze these cases. The fact that he didn’t immediately comply doesn’t mean he should die. And that mentality, that mindset that, “I’m gonna pull out a firearm, and either you do exactly what I say or I’m gonna shoot you and kill you in the street,” that’s not how these encounters should occur.

Christi: Which is why he was fired, the police chief there calling it a “command of temper…”

Page: Yeah.

Christi: …that was violated. We know that the children have filed a wrongful death lawsuit. They did that, actually, in June. It’s against the City of Baton Rouge. It’s against the police department.

Page: Right.

Christi: How does this weigh into what could happen in that civil suit?

Page: Oh, I think it helps the civil case. The standard’s gonna be a little bit different in a civil case. It’s not proof beyond a reasonable doubt that he intended to kill Alton Sterling. The standard’s gonna be, “Did he violate his constitutional rights? Did he act negligently?” And I think the fact that he was fired from his job for not following the proper protocols and policies that they had in place is good evidence to support the civil case. But none of that changes this behavior over time. I mean, we’ve seen civil settlements in these cases time and time again, but very few prosecutions and even fewer convictions. And it’s only from the criminal standpoint, I think, that we’re gonna see any change. Unless we see these folks prosecuted and held accountable, you’re not gonna see fundamental change.

Christi: So why is it so hard to bring criminal charges against somebody when you do hear threats like that from the get-go?

Page: Right.

Christi: You know, immediately he was, “I’m gonna shoot you in the head.”

Page: Yeah.

Christi: How does it happen that we’re back in this place?

Page: Well, the Supreme Court gives a lot of protection to police officers. And so the standard that prosecutors use to evaluate those cases is different than if you or I were involved in a shooting incident. They’re going to determine, in hindsight, whether a reasonable officer in that same position could have found it necessary to use force, deadly force in this situation. Not in hindsight, not knowing what we know now, not all of the facts and the circumstances, but put yourself in that cop’s shoes. And was it unreasonable to fire your gun at that point? And that’s the legal standard. And what really bugs me and what’s very different, again, from you or I, or any other citizen, is they’re making this evaluation before they indict the person. They’re making this evaluation before a jury trial. That’s not appropriate. This kinda decision is up to a jury.

All you need is probable cause to get an indictment, not proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and that’s the standard that anyone else would be held accountable to. But police officers are different. Now, you understand that from a prosecutor’s side because they lose a lot of these cases. I mean, we saw what happened in Baltimore in the Freddie Gray case.

Christi: That’s true.

Page: An aggressive prosecutor indicts these officers, but none of them go to jail.

Christi: But if this went to a jury, based on everything that you’ve seen, can you prognosticate?

Page: It’s hard.

Christi: If it would be easier, let’s say, for a prosecution to get a win?

Page: I think so. I think so with these videos that we’ve seen, this evidence of intent. The fact that the officer, at least one of them, showed up with the idea that, “You comply or you die. And I’m here with a gun. I’m gonna pull out my firearm.” There’s no question, whether Sterling had a gun or not, he was not in a position to use that firearm on those officers. He was not posing an immediate threat to anyone in that area, and that’s what they should have evaluated. But juries usually side with cops. I mean, they give ’em a lotta leeway because they recognize it’s a dangerous job. So I don’t know, even if he was indicted that he would have actually been convicted. But that’s no excuse not to charge him. I think people need to see these officers go through the process like anybody else. And then if a jury acquits him, then the jury acquits him.

Christi: The fact that this police officer has been fired, do you think there is any consequential change that could happen from that? Are police departments paying attention in that regard?

Page: When did this happen, 2016?

Christi: -teen…Mm-hmm.

Page: Yeah. And he’s fired over a year later? I don’t know. I mean, to me, as an officer, that signals that “I can do what I want to. And as long as I have some argument after the fact that I could have been in fear or I could have had some reasonable justification, I’m gonna be okay. I may lose my job, but I’m even appealing that decision.” I don’t see the conse-…

Christi: And real quickly, that appeal, how plausible is it that he could win that? What would the grounds be for appeal?

Page: I don’t see it happening. I know his lawyer, John McLindon, a very good lawyer. But Salamoni gave no facts during the investigation, refused to answer any questions. I don’t see how you justify what he did at all.

Christi: All right. Page Pate. I always appreciate your expertise.

Page: Thank you.

Christi Thank you, sir. Appreciate it.