Police not entitled to last word in wrongful death cases

Excessive force wrongful deathIn wrongful death cases where police kill the only witness who could contradict their version of events, is the court required to accept the testimony of the police?

The issue is not uncommon in excessive force cases that result in the death of the only person involved in the police-citizen encounter. But witness testimony is not the only evidence available to the Estate.

In a published opinion issued on February 9, 2016, the Tenth Circuit held that courts cannot ignore circumstantial evidence and summarily accept the self-serving testimony of police.

In Pauly v. White, police approached the home of two men under cover of darkness and rain. Neither man was suspected of committing any crime, but the police were there to investigate a minor road rage incident that had already resolved, and resulted in no injuries.

As the police approached, the two occupants of the home thought they might be intruders from the earlier incident and proceeded to arm themselves in protection of their house. Tragically, one of the men was killed when he opened a window attempting to scare off the would-be intruders.

The police told a slightly different story, and claimed the man actually brandished and fired a weapon at them. And, because the other occupant was at the back of the house at the time, there were no other witnesses to contradict this story.

Despite the lack of any witness who could contradict the police, the Tenth Circuit held that, “since the victim of deadly force is unable to testify, courts should be cautious . . . to ‘ensure that the officer is not taking advantage of the fact that the witness most likely to contradict his story–the person shot dead–is unable to testify.’”

Consistent with this principle, the Tenth Circuit favorably cited other circuit courts that arrived at similar conclusions: “the court may not simply accept what may be a self-serving account by the police officer.” Rather, “[i]t must also look at the circumstantial evidence that . . . would tend to discredit the police officer’s story, and consider whether this evidence could convince a rational factfinder that the officer acted unreasonably.”

Evaluating the version of events offered by law enforcement often requires particular knowledge and experience in investigative operations and policy. If you have questions about a wrongful death caused by excessive force, contact the attorneys at Bryan & Terrill Law 918-935-2777.