Consider a case of reasonable force

There has been much publicity in recent years about shootings by police officers.  The law tries to balance the difficult job of an officer, often in the heat of the moment, with the laws that protect all persons including criminal suspects. How a jury and the courts resolve such cases is illustrated by a case last month from Maryland’s intermediate appellate Court called Johnnie Armstead Riley v. State.

The Court’s opinion indicates that Sergeant Riley from the Prince George’s County police was driving an unmarked police car, when he saw a motorcycle that was following an SUV make an illegal turn the wrong way down a one way street. The motorcycle driver did not immediately pull over when Riley activated the lights on his vehicle, and after he stopped Riley confirmed that the motorcycle was stolen. He removed Kyle from the motorcycle and arrested him, searching him, handcuffing him and restraining him in the police car with a seatbelt. He then saw the SUV coming towards him at 10 to 15 mph with the driver leaning out of the vehicle, then noticed that Kyle had gotten out of the police car and was running away.

Riley and three State’s witnesses at trial confirmed that as he was chasing Kyle on foot, he threw his police baton at the suspect. Riley testified that at that point “everything became intense,” and he believed that the SUV was there to pick up Kyle and that it posed a danger to him. He yelled to Kyle four times to stop or he would shoot.  He fired two shots while running, then stopped and fired a third shot which struck Kyle. Riley immediately reported to dispatch that he had shot his suspect. Kyle was paralyzed from the waist down as a result of the shooting.

At trial, the State called two veteran officers as expert witnesses. One said that Riley did not use reasonable force, because the suspect running away was still handcuffed, had committed a relatively non-serious offense and posed no imminent threat. The other State’s expert said that Riley’s use of force was unreasonable and that he made a tactical error in judgement. Riley called an expert, who said that police guidelines for use of force were deliberately vague, that Riley’s fear of death led to “inattentional blindness” and his actions were objectively reasonable. The jury acquitted Riley of attempted murder, but convicted him of assault, use of a handgun in a crime of violence and misconduct in office, and he was sentenced to prison and appealed.

The appellate Court found, in reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence, that the standard was whether a rational trier of fact could find that the necessary elements of the crimes were proven beyond a reasonable doubt. It found sufficient evidence, particularly from the two experts, to support the jury’s rejection of the defense of law enforcement justification. 

Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation.


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