Legally Speaking: Cases Involving Officers Are Often Difficult

Law enforcement officers have very difficult and dangerous jobs. Many times, officers must make split-second decisions that determine life or death. They do all of this with the mantra of protecting and serving the public.

As a general rule, officers may use deadly force when there is a significant risk of serious bodily injury or death to themselves or others. The vast majority of law enforcement officers are honest, brave individuals who run to perilous situations when others flee. However, just like with any other profession, at times officers can cross the line or find themselves in unenviable positions.

Derek Chauvin is the former Minneapolis Police officer who is accused of using excessive force in May of 2020 resulting in the death of George Floyd, an African-American. Chauvin used a “knee to the neck” maneuver. That case led to race riots all over the country last year. The trial is occurring now and is available to watch via live stream on the internet and television. I have watched some of this trial so far and it is very likely Chauvin will be convicted of something despite Floyd initially resisting arrest with suspected drug use.

The Chauvin trial reminds me of a few cases I prosecuted related to police officers. I can tell you from experience that these are difficult cases all the way around. Most jurors are law-abiding citizens who are reluctant to convict police officers.

In Gilmer County, I assisted with a case where a small-town officer chased a speeding young man well outside of his jurisdiction. The officer then t-boned the driver’s vehicle in a field and fired a shot through the vehicle door area, just barely glancing the driver’s back. The driver continued to flee and hid in a house with others, even more miles outside of city limits. The officer and a trainee went into that house without a warrant, holding several people at gunpoint. We secured a felony conviction against the officer but it was later overturned by the West Virginia Supreme Court, in part due to a judicial error on a jury instruction.

As I recall, the case eventually ended in a misdemeanor conviction.

In another case, I prosecuted a case in Jackson County against an officer who was accused of partying with teenage girls and having sexual relations with them. Several of these girls testified against the officer.

In that case, five or six other officers came to the jury trial, all in civilian clothes and wearing sidearms. They sat on the defense side of the courtroom. I objected to that armed show of support. I remember leaving court one day and driving back to Charleston. A deputy literally rode my bumper for about 5 miles, which was unnerving. That case resulted in a hung jury and the officer eventually pled to a misdemeanor.

In another case, I prosecuted a Charleston police officer for excessive speed in a downtown business district where the officer struck and killed an elderly lady driving across the street. The officer was running with no lights and siren responding to a 911 call. That case also resulted in a misdemeanor. I declined to prosecute an eastern panhandle sheriff for utilizing a dual pager that forwarded deputy pages.

While I did not try this case, I followed a trial where a Charleston police officer was accused of double-dipping by working security at the mall while being on duty as an officer. The officer had an outstanding defense attorney (who later became a federal magistrate judge). He was one of the best trial lawyers I have ever seen. When he spoke, he controlled the courtroom.

The jury acquitted the officer.

Many times, officers are the victims. I handled a case once where a suspect pointed a gun at a Charleston police officer, at close range, pulled the trigger but the round did not fire. Somehow, that officer showed enough restraint to merely tase the suspect and not shoot him dead. We had a discussion about the use of force standards and the fact it was also important for the officer to stay alive.

Sadly, a young female Charleston police officer was recently killed in the line of duty in a similar situation.

I prosecuted a fellow for attempting to outrun a state trooper on a motorcycle while having a backpack of methamphetamine materials and a passenger on board. The motorcyclist wrecked and engaged the trooper in hand-to-hand combat while reaching for the trooper’s gun. Most of this was caught on in-car video. The trooper was big and strong but became so tired fighting this guy, the trooper had to ask passersby for assistance. The suspect was eventually subdued, charged, convicted at trial and went to prison. I have a photograph of multiple smiling state troopers in the courtroom after the trial was over.

In another case I prosecuted a young female in Charleston for assisting in a fleeing from police situation. She threw items out of the window at police officers who were pursuing her boyfriend. That case ended with an officer being shot and killed from friendly fire. The fleeing driver rammed police cruisers and was also shot and killed by police. That was a very tragic case where the deceased officer left behind a grieving wife.

In another matter, I was special prosecutor where a man was accused of simply walking up the Mingo County Sheriff and shooting him in the head while the Sheriff ate lunch in his cruiser. I believe that case is still pending.

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