Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Missouri Law Gives Officers too Broad of a License to Kill

Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown, and he will face no legal repercussions for his actions.  Some members of our society are pleased with this result.  Others are outraged.  But while many people have strong opinions on this particular case, most of them are not familiar with the Missouri law that allowed Darren Wilson to shoot Michael Brown to death and face no criminal responsibility.  In Missouri, that law falls under the defense of Justification.  It is a law that gives police officers the right to kill people who are suspected of minor crimes, and it  desperately needs to change.

What is the Law of Justification in Missouri
The broad defense of justification in Missouri covers all sorts of justifications for one person killing another.  The most common uses of the law are its sections that deal with things like self defense or defense of others.  Most Americans, with the exception of some pacifists, support the idea that if someone is trying to kill or do serious physical injury to you or someone else, that you should be able to use force including lethal force to stop them.  But there is another section of the justification law that gives police officers extremely broad powers to kill regular people, even when no one's life is in danger and no one is facing the risk of serious physical injury.

The law I am talking about is Missouri Revised Statute 563.046.  It deals with a law enforcement officer's use of force in making an arrest.  This law, first of all, gives an officer the right to use force in making an arrest.  That, in and of itself, is not a bad thing--sometimes suspects resist lawful arrests and sometimes a use of some degree of force is absolutely necessary.  However, the portion of the law that deals with deadly force is what is problematic.  The law says that a cop who is making an arrest is justified in using deadly force when he or she "reasonably believes that such use of deadly force is immediately necessary to effect the arrest" and also believes "that the person to be arrested has committed or attempted to commit a felony..."  Now, some language in this law is set to change in 2017, but not this particular part of the language.  So in other words, a Missouri cop is allowed under the law to kill anyone who runs away from (and won't stop running from) a felony arrest.

The Law is too Broad
On its face, this may seem rational to you.  After all, if someone is a murder or rape suspect, they are dangerous to society.  And in those sorts of cases it may very well make sense to use deadly force if the suspect presents an immediate serious danger to the community if not apprehended.  But those are not the only suspects covered by this law.  Anyone suspected of any felony is covered.  Felonies in Missouri include crimes like failure to pay child support and passing a bad check.  While these crimes are important, the people who commit them do not present an immediate danger.  Yet an officer could shoot and kill them if they ran from arrest and he could not otherwise stop them.  To me, that is wrong.  That is too much power to kill.

So What About Michael Brown?
So the question in the Darren Wilson case is whether or not he had grounds to be arresting Michael Brown for a felony.  That is why the "prosecution" (they acted much more like defense attorneys in this case, an issue I will discuss in a later post) focused so much on the testimony that indicated that Michael Brown tried to take Darren Wilson's gun. If they grand jurors believed that, then they would believe that the officer had the right to arrest Michael Brown for a felony (either assault on a law enforcement officer or disarming the officer), and under the law, the killing is justified.

Just Because it is Legal Does not Mean it is Right
So lets assume for a moment that the grand jurors weighed the evidence correctly, and that Wilson was technically legally justified in killing Brown.  That in no way shape or form means that Wilson was morally or ethically justified.  It in no way means that what he did was right.  It does not change the fact that he killed an unarmed teenager who was not an immediate threat to innocent bystanders.  It just means that we as a society have a law on the books that allowed him to do just that.  That is what we should be upset about--that our legislatures have given our law enforcement a blank check to shoot not only people like Michael Brown, but in fact to shoot and kill people who are not suspected of any violent crime at all.

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