Vargas: Why the justice system worked for Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson


Last week, the Department of Justice concluded there was not enough evidence to seek criminal charges against former Ferguson, Mo. Police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown.

Few people, even those passionate about the case, will probably take the time to read the 86-page report.

It’s an interesting read to see the case presented as a matter of fact.

Especially interesting were statements from witnesses who declined to speak out during the media firestorm. Given the aftermath it was probably a wise decision on their part.

The report serves as a guide to what the Department of Justice is looking for when they review any police use of force case for prosecution.

The prosecutors base their decision upon previous court case decisions and how it compares against the evidence in the case. I’ve taken the highlights the report and inserted them so you can get the jest of their decision making process.

This is what the Department of Justice had to determine as they reviewed the incident.

“The determination of whether criminal prosecution is appropriate rests on whether there is sufficient evidence to establish that any of the shots fired by Wilson were unreasonable, as defined under federal law, given the facts known to Wilson at the time, and if so, whether Wilson fired the shots with the requisite ‘willful’ criminal intent,” according to the report.

The prosecutor would have to prove an officer acted “willfully” to violate the law. Or the behavior was so reckless as to on its face demonstrate willfulness.

“Federal law requires that the government must also prove that the officer acted willfully, that is, ‘for the specific purpose of violating the law.’ – Screws v. United States, 325 U.S. 91. The Supreme Court has held that an act is done willfully if it was ‘committed’ either ‘in open defiance or in reckless disregard of a constitutional requirement which has been made specific or definite.’ Screws, 325 U.S. at 105

“Willfulness may be inferred from blatantly wrongful conduct. See id. at 106; see also United States v. Reese, 2 F.3d 870, 881 (9th Cir. 1993). Mistake, fear, misperception, or even poor judgment does not constitute willful conduct prosecutable under the statute. See United States v. McClean, 528 F.2d 1250, 1255 (2d Cir.1976) (inadvertence or mistake negates willfulness for purposes of 18 U.S.C. § 242).”

In order to justify prosecution the prosecutors would have had to establish an officer acted unreasonably given the circumstances.

“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.” Id. at 396. Under well-established Fourth Amendment precedent, it is not objectively unreasonable for a law enforcement officer to use deadly force in response to being physically assaulted by a subject who attempts to take his firearm. See, e.g., Nelson, 162 F.3d at 990-91. As detailed throughout this report, the evidence does not establish that the shots fired by Wilson were objectively unreasonable under federal law.”

The courts have determined that you cannot allow Monday morning quarterbacking or public opinion to replace the instantaneous judgment of the officer experiencing the event.

“It may appear, in the calm aftermath, that an officer could have taken a different course, but we do not hold the police to such a demanding standard.” (citing Gardner v. Buerger, 82 F.3d 248, 251 (8th Cir. 1996) (same).

Suspects have an obligation to comply with the authority of the officer. Especially when the officer is pointing a gun at you.

“Rather, where, as here, an officer points his gun at a suspect to halt his advance, that suspect should be on notice that “escalation of the situation would result in the use of the firearm.” Estate of Morgan at 498.

“Under the law, Wilson has a strong argument that he was justified in firing his weapon at Brown as he continued to advance toward him and refuse commands to stop, and the law does not require Wilson to wait until Brown was close enough to physically assault Wilson.

Concerns about tactics and decision-making also are addressed by case law, as the courts are aware of the split second decision-making and uniqueness of every use of force incident.

“Thus, under Graham, we must avoid substituting our personal notions of proper police procedure for the instantaneous decision of the officer at the scene. We must never allow the theoretical, sanitized world of our imagination to replace the dangerous and complex world that policemen face every day.” ….Smith, 954 F.2d at 347 (6th Cir. 1992). See also Ryburn v. Huff, 132 S. Ct. 987, 991-92 (2012)

The report closes with this final line:

“For the reasons set forth above, this matter lacks prosecutive merit and should be closed.”

I have to add criminal misconduct is not the same as civil liability. Poor decision making and bad judgment can serve as the basis for lawsuits and there are often severe financial consequences in these cases.

Many people will be unhappy with the decision because it doesn’t fit their version of the truth. Trying to make reasoned arguments with anyone experiencing an event emotionally is always a challenge.

We are very privileged to live in a country where we operate under an established rule of law rather than the rule of the mob.