Was Officer Darren Wilson Justified in Killing Michael Brown?
It’s hard to imagine how a police officer could be justified in shooting an unarmed teenager multiple times when the teenager was unarmed and 35 feet away from the officer.
Police officers are justified in using deadly force only when they are defending themselves or another person from imminent death or serious bodily injury. Based on what has been reported about the death of Michael Brown, I do not believe this Missouri police officer was justified in using deadly force.
In determining whether the officer was justified in shooting Michael Brown multiple times, we have to consider what the officer was thinking at the time and whether his thoughts were reasonable based on all the circumstances.
We do not have the officer’s full side of the incident at this point, but authorities have hinted at his defense. According to law enforcement, Brown instigated a “physical confrontation” when the police officer tried to get out of his vehicle. Authorities also say that, at some point, Brown tried to get the officer’s weapon.
Even assuming these facts as true, Brown’s conduct doesn’t necessarily justify the officer’s use of deadly force. The key issue is whether the officer reasonably believed that he was in immediate danger of being killed or seriously injured. If Brown had already moved away from the patrol car, and was not threatening any other person, then the officer had no reason to shoot him. That is especially true if Brown was a safe distance away from the officer and had his arms in the air at the time.
The FBI and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice are investigating the incident to determine if any federal laws were violated. I have represented both police officers and victims in similar investigations and I know how the process works.
The focus of the federal investigation will be whether the officer violated Michael Brown’s civil rights. A criminal violation of someone’s civil rights is not the same as harassment or discrimination. In fact, an officer can violate someone’s civil rights without having any racial motive at all. The question is whether the officer was acting under “color of law” and deprived a person of a constitutional right.
An on-duty police officer is almost always acting “under color of law,” and the Constitution protects us from law enforcement officers using excessive force. The only remaining question in this case is whether the officer used excessive force when he shot Brown multiple times. The answer to that question will depend on the reasonableness of the officer’s belief that Brown was about to kill or seriously injury him. In my opinion, it is not reasonable for the officer to think that Brown presented an immediate threat of seriously injuring the officer if Brown was unarmed, a safe distance away from the officer, and in the process of surrendering.
If the officer is charged with a violation of Brown’s civil rights, he could be sentenced to life in prison because the civil rights violation in this case lead to Brown’s death. Had Brown only been injured, the officer would face up to 10 years in prison. State and local authorities are also investigating the case and could charge the officer with violations of state criminal laws including murder.
Based on my experience in these investigations, I expect it will take several months to complete. The FBI will need to review the forensic evidence from the scene, the autopsy reports, and any lab tests. Of course, someone needs to objectively interview all of the witnesses to the incident.
Unfortunately, there is no video or audio evidence of what happened. The Ferguson Police Department does not equip its patrol cars with dashboard cameras, and apparently this officer did not use a body mic to capture the sound. Recording equipment like this is commonly used in police departments across the county for both protection of the officer and the person being stopped or confronted. It makes no sense to me why Ferguson would not have cameras installed in all of their patrol vehicles. The technology is not new and the cost is insignificant.
The officer is currently on paid administrative leave and will have to go psychological evaluations before returning to work. That is routine in these cases. I expect the officer will remain on leave until there is a final determination of whether he will be disciplined or criminally charged. The officer’s certification may also be suspended while this investigation is pending.
Page Pate is an accomplished trial lawyer with over 25 years of experience in criminal defense, civil litigation, and whistleblower representation. Page is listed in The Best Lawyers in America, Top 100 Lawyers by The National Trial Lawyers, and named to the list of Super Lawyers for the past 15 consecutive years. Page is a frequent expert legal analyst for local and national media and has served as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Georgia Law School. Read Page’s reviews on AVVO. Follow Page on Twitter @pagepate and on Linkedin.