Police Shootings and Criminal Charges

Posted By Galluzzo & Arnone LLP || 7-Aug-2012

Police officers are authorized to use lethal force under various life-threatening scenarios. But sometimes, they make mistakes and shoot the wrong person, or shoot someone under the wrong circumstances. Police officers that make these sorts of tragic mistakes can face a wide variety of criminal charges, the most serious of which are contained in Chapter 125 of the Penal Law. Two common charges are Manslaughter and Criminally Negligent Homicide (Penal Law Section 125.10). The most relevant things to consider are: 1) the facts available to the officer at the time that he made his decision, 2) whether the decision to fire was reasonable under the circumstances, and 3) the harm suffered by the shooting victim.

For example, Ramarley Graham was recently shot and killed because the police officer supposedly believed that Graham had a weapon, though he did not. In the case of Ramarley Graham, the police officer was indicted for first- and second-degree manslaughter (Penal Law Sections 125.15 and 125.20) for recklessly causing the death of a young man in his apartment. Penal Law Chapter 15 explains recklessness thusly: “A person acts recklessly with respect to a result or to a circumstance described by a statute defining an offense when he is aware of and consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that such result will occur or that such circumstance exists. The risk must be of such nature and degree that disregard thereof constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would observe in the situation. A person who creates such a risk but is unaware thereof solely by reason of voluntary intoxication also acts recklessly with respect thereto.” Generally speaking, recklessness is more difficult to prove than negligence, and thus the charge of manslaughter is more serious than the charge of criminally negligent homicide (Manslaughter in the First Degree is a Class B violent felony, and Criminally Negligent Homicide is a Class E felony). Penal Law Chapter 15 further defines negligence: “A person acts with criminal negligence with respect to a result or to a circumstance described by a statute defining an offense when he fails to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk that such result will occur or that such circumstance exists. The risk must be of such nature and degree that the failure to perceive it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the situation.”

So, in short, the difference between recklessness and negligence in this context is whether the police officer that fired his weapon consciously disregarded the risk that he was making a mistake and fired anyway, or whether he simply did not realize that there was a risk that he was making a mistake.

In cases in which the shooting victim is not killed, such as in the case of James Austin (who was recently shot as an innocent bystander by some police in Brooklyn) then charges of Assault in the First or Second Degree can also be possible. In particular, Assault in the Second Degree, Penal Law Section 120.05(4) is typically applicable: A person is guilty of Assault in the Second Degree when “he recklessly causes serious physical injury to another person by means of a deadly weapon or a dangerous instrument.” Notably, there is no criminal charge for “negligent assault,” though a police officer can still be sued in civil court for negligence in the absence of an applicable criminal charge.

If you or a loved one have been wrongfully shot by a police officer, you should strongly consider contacting an experienced criminal defense and civil rights attorney that has successfully defended complex criminal cases involving police shootings and pursued civil matters in federal court on behalf of the victims of police shootings.

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