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Are the police to blame if they kill someone who is on drugs?

On Behalf of | Apr 29, 2021 | Criminal Justice |

The singular difference between police and others is that the police are authorized to use force. Sometimes, that force kills people. When is the use of deadly force justified – and when is it murder?

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In the Derek Chauvin trial, the defense argued that George Floyd died due to an underlying heart condition and his use of methamphetamines and fentanyl, not Chauvin’s knee on his neck. Their argument didn’t work in Chauvin’s case, but it does raise an interesting question. If someone the police encounter is on drugs, are the police to blame if that person dies in an altercation with the officers?

What are the standards for lethal force? How do courts decide whether an officer’s use of lethal force is appropriate, under the circumstances?

Primarily, it comes down to reasonableness. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects Americans from “unreasonable” searches and seizures, which includes arrests. What is a “reasonable” use of deadly force?

The way the courts look at the issue is based in a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case called Graham v. Connor. In that case, the court decided that any use of force must be evaluated from the officer’s perspective.

“The ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight,” wrote Chief Justice William Rehnquist for a unanimous court.

Jurors must focus on the officer’s state of mind in the moment

Graham v. Connor made clear that jurors in excessive force cases can’t use hindsight to determine whether an officer’s use of force was reasonable. Instead, they are to consider what a reasonable officer would have done in the same circumstances, which includes the officer’s perception of the danger.

In other words, if an officer genuinely believes his or her life was in danger, they may reasonably use deadly force even if other, less-lethal options were available and even if hindsight reveals that the officer was not actually in danger.

One of the circumstances to be considered is the victim’s use of drugs. Some drugs can cause changes in both arousal and judgment, making users of those drugs potentially dangerous. Someone who is high on certain drugs, such as PCP, could act unpredictably and put the officer’s safety at risk. In some cases, officer training says, people using certain drugs can become stronger than they otherwise would be.

According to the Associated Press, George Floyd had both methamphetamine and fentanyl in his system when he died. Pills containing those drugs were also found on the scene. Was Floyd a danger to officers due to the influence of these drugs?

Floyd was a large man and the 911 call leading up to the arrest did claim Floyd seemed intoxicated by alcohol and possibly something else. When Chauvin arrived, two other officers were struggling with Floyd. Chauvin’s initial attempt to take control of the situation may have been reasonable.

The doctrine of Graham v. Connor has been responsible for many officers being acquitted after using deadly force in situations where hindsight would not allow it. All that is required is for jurors to believe the officer acted reasonably, considering everything the officer knew and believed at the time.

An officer’s suspicion that someone may be on drugs is a common underlying factor in the decision to use force, even deadly force. Yet not all drugs have the ability to confer extra strength or even to promote unpredictable actions.

Nevertheless, courts often view officers’ use of deadly force to be a split-second decision in a chaotic, threatening environment and refuse to second-guess it.

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