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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 bringing 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: http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2014/11/25/366507379/ferguson-docs-how-the-grand-jury-reached-a-decision http://www.theblaze.com/blog/2014/11/25/eric-holder-federal-civil-rights-case-against-ferguson-cop-will-continue/

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