Fleeing an officer - is there liability on the part of police?by Attorney Carlos Gamino on 03/09/14
At my law firm, Attorneys like Carlos A. Gamino weren't too surprised to read that the US Supreme Court was reported to be siding with the police, and against the family of the driver of a vehicle who was alleged to have fled from the police at high speeds, that ended with the death of the driver and a passenger in the car. Apparently, the deaths were not a result of a car accident from the high speed chase as one might expect, but rather they died as a result of being shot by the police officers involved in their pursuit. An issue in the case was whether the police officers could be held liable for the use of excessive force, or whether they were entitled to some immunity for their role in the suspect's death.
Our thoughts stem from the perspective of a criminal defense lawyer, however, and recognize that, in life, normally when there are allegations that someone did something excessive, penalties apply. When a defendant in a criminal case argues self defense as a legal justification for actions that hurt someone else, terms like "excessive" can spell the death knell for a client's case, and tend to mean that liability and punishment is justified. However, in the case of the police using excessive force it remains an open question. In the case at issue currently before the Supreme Court the suspect was stopped for a simple violation of having a headlight out on the vehicle. However, instead of cooperating with the police officer who stopped his car, the man was alleged to have refused to comply with the officer's request that he get out of his vehicle, sped away across state lines, endangered other vehicles by weaving through traffic, and collided with a police car, head-on. After the suspect's car was surrounded he was alleged to have struck another police car and almost hit an officer as the driver attempted to drive away. At that point, the police fired 15 rounds into the fleeing vehicle; 12 of which were fired after the vehicle was already driving away. Both the driver and the passenger were killed as they fled.
While there may be an issue of whether the officers' conduct was necessary or excessive under those circumstances, the issue making headlines is whether the police officers are immune from liability, regardless. This case could have far reaching effects beyond the facts of this case. In Wisconsin, and especially in Milwaukee, criminal defense attorneys have been listening to client's complaints about police brutality with greater frequency. Amidst stories of police brutality in Milwaukee and the reported deaths of suspects in the custody of the Milwaukee Police Department, the determination of whether police may be liable for the use of excessive force when working in their official capacity can either send a message to the police that their actions are not above the law and that even suspected criminals must be treated humanely; or it could send a message that the police can do what they want - a frightening concept. Certainly there are situations where the police are in danger and need to be able to protect themselves, even with the use of deadly force. However, immunity from liability is a very broad shield - one that we don't think should often be applied as it eliminates determinations of whether someone's actions were reasonable under the circumstances. And, no one should be given immunity to act unreasonably, or excessively, especially when it can involve such devastating consequences as deadly force under the color of law.