Are Police Ever Justified in Shooting a Fleeing Suspect?

Our Hollywood and West Palm Beach criminal defense lawyers know that the events which took place in North Charleston, South Carolina, last weekend have shaken the country.
The fact that a uniformed police officer fired 8 bullets at the back of a suspect fleeing on foot, fatally killing him, has raised questions of morals, ethics, and responsibility. But we know that this incident raises an important legal issue, namely whether or not this type of shooting is ever authorized and legal.

The fact is that there are situations in which a police officer would be justified in fatally shooting a fleeing suspect. That said, given what authorities know about the North Charleston incident, the police officer has been charged with murder.

Generally, in order for a law enforcement officer to be justified in fatally shooting a fleeing suspect, a number of factors need to be present, chief among them a belief by the shooting officer that the suspect was committing or was about to commit a dangerous, serious felony offense (such as felony assault, for instance). Another factor is whether or not the shooting officer had been threatened by the suspect with a weapon. Additionally, an important consideration is whether or not the shooting officer believed, at the time he fired the shots, that the suspect (if not stopped by the shooting) was going to cause serious injury or death to the shooting officer, another officer, or another civilian.

Our Hollywood and West Palm Beach criminal defense lawyers know that the 1985 Supreme Court case Tennessee v. Garner set the bar for the issue of shooting a fleeing suspect. The case led to an opinion in which the Court held that the Memphis police acted unreasonably by fatally shooting an unarmed suspect in the back as he was running from a house that he was thought to have burglarized. This ruling essentially makes clear that officers can only fatally shoot a fleeing suspect when they believe (reasonably) that their life is in danger and that fear that the suspect might escape is not sufficient reason to fatally shoot them.

From what our Hollywood and West Palm Beach criminal defense lawyers at the Law Offices of Leifert & Leifert can tell, based on our understanding of the videos released to the public and analysis conducted by preeminent legal scholars around the country, it appears that (again, based on the evidence to which we currently have access) the officer, Michael Slager, was not justified in shooting the unarmed, fleeing civilian, Walter Scott. A number of factors, including that he was stopped for a presumed non-violent offense (a broken tail light); that he was unarmed; and that he apparently did not threaten the officer or anyone else lead to the conclusion that this was not a lawful shooting, but rather murder, with which Slager has thus been charged.

It’s absolutely critical, however, to remember that case dynamics can change in an instant with the introduction of new evidence, the determination that a witness is not credible or that they doctored video footage, the testimony of experts, etc. This is why the public must not rush to judgment on this case. While responding emphatically to what is universally acknowledged to be a horrendous video is completely understandable, it’s also important to remember that our criminal justice system hinges on the belief that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. Video footage which appears to be damning evidence might well make this an open and shut case, but that should be for the jury to decide, not the public before Slager has a chance to defend himself in a court of law.

If you have any questions about this or any other criminal defense issue, or if you’ve been arrested for or charged with a crime in Palm Beach, Broward or Miami-Dade County, please contact our criminal defense lawyers at Leifert & Leifert by calling 1-888-5-DEFEND (1-888-533-3363) to schedule a free consultation. We look forward to assisting you.

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