Michael Slager, an officer with the North Charleston Police Department, has been charged with murder after a highly disturbing video surfaced that shows him shooting an unarmed man who was running away. He could face the death penalty for the alleged crime.
The shooting followed a traffic stop for the ubiquitous reason of having a brake light out on his Mercedes-Benz. We have previously discussed the problem of pretextual stops where traffic violations are used to conduct searches or question drivers. For a prior column, click here.
The video below shows Walter Scott, 50, breaking away from the officer. Something clearly falls to the ground and the officer fires eight shots at the man as he runs away.
Police reports include a statement from Slager that “Shots fired and the subject is down. He took my Taser.”
The video appears to contradict some of what Slager reported. He did report using the taser without effect. The video appears to show wires from the stun gun extending from Scott’s body as the two men struggle. However, Scott then breaks away and is shot roughly 20 feet away from the officer in a hail of bullets.
Under Tennessee v. Garner, a fleeing suspect can be shot under limited circumstances. Deadly force may be used only when “necessary to prevent the escape and the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious bodily harm to the officer or others.” Justice White wrote:
A police officer may not seize an unarmed, nondangerous suspect by shooting him dead…however…Where the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others, it is not constitutionally unreasonable to prevent escape by using deadly force.
The question is likely to be whether the struggle and failed use of the taser created a sufficient basis for Slager to believe that he had probable cause that Scott was posed a serious threat to him or others. Slager could claim that, the fact that Scott allegedly attacked him and tried to take his taser, was enough to satisfy that Garner standard. This is the ultimate jury decision and the image of shooting a fleeing suspect in the back will obviously present a considerable challenge for the defense.