Updated: May 3, 2022
Two Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office (JPSO) deputies were recently arrested on manslaughter charges following the shooting death of an unarmed man who was inside of a parked vehicle. Around two o'clock in the morning on February 16, 2022, deputies responded to a noise complaint in the area of a known drug house. Deputies encountered the decedent in the driver's seat of a parked vehicle in front of the house. The vehicle had a switched license plate and deputies ordered the decedent to exit the vehicle for about 12 minutes to no avail. The decedent then locked the vehicle's doors and started the engine, putting the deputies on alert of a potentially dangerous encounter with a moving vehicle. In response, the deputies drew their firearms, however, the vehicle never moved. The decedent then dropped his hands and struck the horn. This action caused one deputy to fire his handgun. A second deputy fired in response to the shots by the first. The decedent was struck and succumbed to his injuries.
In announcing the arrest of the deputies, JPSO Sheriff Joseph P. Lopinto, III stated that the use of deadly force in the situation was "not justified" but was "certainly not intentional". He went on to say that numerous charges were considered, including second degree murder and negligent homicide, but was confident in the decision to charge the deputies with manslaughter. Louisiana law defines manslaughter as a homicide that is committed in sudden passion or heat of blood immediately caused by provocation sufficient to deprive an average person of his self-control and cool reflection. Essentially, manslaughter is an intentional act that causes a death with a mitigating factor that lessens the severity of the offense. There will certainly be a debate of the propriety of this charge moving forward.
Ordinarily, law enforcement officers receive protection from criminal prosecution and/or arrest based on the state's self-defense laws. Under these laws, a homicide is "justifiable" if a deputy (or any person) reasonably believes that he/she is in imminent danger of losing his/her life or receiving great bodily harm and the killing is necessary to save himself/herself from that danger. Based on the facts and evidence released by JPSO thus far, there seems to be no reasonable or articulable basis for either deputy fearing for life or safety since the decedent was not armed and the vehicle never moved. The Sheriff did note that the deputies believed that they were in danger. The investigation presumably revealed that the basis of the decision to fire was not reasonable under the circumstances. However, the analysis to determine if use of force actions were reasonable is never easy, even in hindsight and under calm conditions, with unlimited time to weigh options. More can be properly said once all of the evidence is released.
It is important to note that for a homicide to be reasonable and/or justifiable there is no requirement that the decedent be armed with a handgun, or any other type of traditional weapon for that matter. The law defines a "dangerous weapon" as any gas, liquid or other substance or instrumentality, which, in the manner used, is calculated or likely to produce death or great bodily harm. A motor vehicle (i.e., other instrumentality) often times becomes a dangerous weapon due to the struck-by risk to others created by particular operation, regardless of whether there is intent to harm or not. Scores of officer-involved shootings have been properly deemed justifiable due to this well-known and serious risk because the force was necessary to protect the safety of the officer and/or others. However, each case pivots on the unique facts and the totality of all of the circumstances at hand. The age-old answer of "it depends" when evaluating use of force is usually appropriate until all of the facts are known.
The legal troubles do not end there for the deputies and JPSO. There will be a civil law suit filed, and it likely will be based on the federal claim found at 42 U.S.C. 1983. The United States Supreme Court has stated that law enforcement agencies can be held liable in civil court pursuant to section 1983 if the claim is based on the implementation or execution of "a policy statement, ordinance, regulation, or decision officially adopted and promulgated by that party's officers". Additionally, an agency "may be sued for constitutional deprivations visited pursuant to governmental 'custom' even though such a custom has not received formal approval through the body's official decision making channels". This is a challenging burden of proof for a plaintiff to meet unless there is some overt evidence of a pattern or practice of similar behaviors within the agency.
Further, the deputies themselves can be held personally liable if it is found that they deprived the decedent of a constitutionally protected right. The deputies would ordinarily rely on Qualified Immunity as a defense. Qualified Immunity was created by the courts and protects government officials from personal liability, even if there was a constitutional violation, so long as that the violation was not "clearly established" at the time. In other words, the defense builds in room for mistakes that were reasonable under the circumstances and made in good faith. However, in a case like this that resulted in the arrest of the deputies, which requires at least probable cause that the homicide was not reasonable, the defense will likely prove fruitless. The answer will take some time as the civil case will probably be halted or stayed pending the outcome of the criminal proceedings.
Similarly, former police officer Kim Potter was recently convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to twenty-four months imprisonment when she mistakenly used her firearm instead of her taser in an attempt to arrest a resisting suspect leading to his death. The conviction has drawn criticism from some who have raised concerns of whether a law enforcement officer's good faith mistake under the pressure of a life-or-death circumstance fulfills the criminal requirements of reckless conduct needed to be charged. In Louisiana, the least of the homicide charges is negligent homicide, which does not require intent, but a gross deviation below the standard of care expected to be maintained by a reasonable person under like circumstances. Perhaps we will see more law enforcement officers charged with this moving forward, depending on the outcome of cases as we have here.
The facts of this case remain scarce, but the manslaughter charges beg the question---did the first deputy shoot by mistake from simply being startled by the horn, or intentionally because of some other articulable fear of danger created by the swift dropping of the decedent's hands? Does either action give rise to a crime if there was no mal intent, or in the alternative, only amount to civil negligence to be remedied with a law suit? The answers to these public policy questions are far from being settled, but for law enforcement, are absolutely necessary as guidance on how to proceed forward and maintain order in an already chaotic job.
Notwithstanding this case and these arrests, there is a bigger movement afoot that brings about a more difficult question---what does society want and expect from law enforcement? If the answer is perfection, we are destined for rapid disappointment and, in my opinion, unprecedented crime as the few officers who will remain will certainly operate in fear of making any mistake. Law enforcement simply cannot be effective if performed in this manner. We do not hold any other profession accountable to this standard, even if death results from bad decisions. But is it the fate of law enforcement moving forward? Only time will tell.