Fatal Shooting Cases Involving Police Officers

Criminal and Civil Consequences in Fatal Shooting Cases Involving Police Officers

Whenever a fatal shooting involving a police officer occurs, the district attorney will consider whether criminal charges are appropriate. This usually involves brining forward evidence of the shooting to a grand jury. The grand jury will then in turn decide whether criminal charges are appropriate in that particular case, or, whether the police officer acted within the limits of lethal-force law. For example, in the case of police officer Darren Wilson, the grand jury decided that there was not sufficient evidence to bring any criminal charges against the officer when he fatally shot Michael Brown.

Even if the district attorney chooses not to file criminal charges against an officer involved in a fatal shooting, the U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ) may get involved. The USDOJ, among other things, is responsible for investigating federal civil rights violations. In order for the USDOJ to pursue a civil rights claim against an officer involved in a fatal shooting, there would have to be evidence that supported a finding that the actions by the police officer were criminal, and the criminal act was motivated by race. If the USDOJ finds race motivation, then the USDOJ can prosecute the officer for a “hate-crime.” (For information about “hate-crimes” see: http://www.justice.gov/usao/priority-areas/civil-rights/hate-crimes). Like a criminal case brought by a district attorney, the result of a conviction for a hate-crime involves prison time and any fines or fees associated with the particular charge.

While the media has made the criminal aspects of these police shooting cases widely known, there are other legal courses of action that can arise from these cases. Even if the USDOJ chooses not to investigate the case, or if there is an investigation but the USDOJ decides there was no civil rights violation, the surviving family members themselves may bring civil suits against the individual police officer involved, as well as the police department in some cases. These civil cases are often referred to as “wrongful death” suits and the requirements for these suits vary from state to state.

Unlike a criminal case, a civil suit for wrongful death has a much lower standard of proof. Therefore, in order to win a wrongful death case, the family members must meet the requirements of a wrongful death suit by a “preponderance of the evidence”, whereas in criminal cases, the standard of proof is “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

In Utah, for example, in order to win a wrongful death suit, the plaintiff (the family members) must prove that the death resulted from the defendant’s (the police officer’s) wrongful act or negligence, and must prove this by a preponderance of the evidence (meaning it is more likely than not that the death occurred due to wrongful acts or negligence). See Utah Code § 78B-3-106(1).

While a civil suit for wrongful death does not have the same consequences as a criminal case, the family members can seek monetary damages. In an officer involved shooting back in 2009, the mother of the victim brought a wrongful death suit against the officer and his employer and ended up settling the suit for $2.8 million. While this civil case did not go to trial, the officer had been convicted of involuntary manslaughter prior to the settlement of the civil case, which may have aided in the mother’s civil suit. (For more details on the facts surrounding this case, see: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2011/jun/13/transit-officer-guilty-in-killing-released-as-prot/).

For reports on the USDOJ’s actions in the case of Michael Brown see these links:



Michael Hepworth

Michael Hepworth

Managing Attorney at Hepworth & Associates
Michael is the Managing Attorney of Hepworth & Associates, LLC.
Michael Hepworth

Latest posts by Michael Hepworth (see all)


3 years ago

My Son Ryan Ronquillo 20yrs old shot mutiple times by 4 DenverPolice officers on July 2 2014 in a parking lot at a Funeral Home which my Son was attending the funeral services of his Best Friend who passed away. The Denver police DEPT had been following Ryan all day that day on a warrant for Auto theft an had said they were following him to apprehend him to arrest for the warrants. They had many chances to apprehend Ryan that day when they saw my son parked on side of the road sitting in a stolen car an instead of apprehening Ryan they called for more undercover officers gang unit task force all of district 1 officers to assit in arrest on My Son who only had auto theft charges never charged in violet crime or dangerous never charged as a gang member never charged with a weapon for them to have treated. My Son to be followed around by a. BIG ARMY OF LAWENFORCEMENT n didnt arrest but proceeding to follow him around which i think they knew Ryan was attending a Funeral and was waiting for him to the funeral home location where they followed him as he drove in the parking lot watched as he began to park the car n they came in seconds behind him spinned him in rush out of their S.U.Vs and undercover cop cars surrounding him some witness said beating him as they were on driverside hitting him not armed no weapon feared n backed up car n they killed him It is on D.A. letter that officer were cleared in My Son Death n i feel angry n saddened with a pain i will never forget what they did to My Son what was hateful heartless n a crime a murder planned by by the Denver Police Dept n No Justice is what what My Son gets n i want Justice for My Son what they did was Evil n WRONG n left Our Family without our Son n wanna bury what they did to a humanbeings. Civil rights n took his life Crooked MURDEROUS COPS need to be held accountable n convicted n citizens The public need to be treated EQUAL when cops are acting in a behavior where they are not trusted for there brutality n deaths they get away with WHO PROTECTS US THE PUBLIC FROM THESES EVIL OFFICERS?????

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