On a hot August night several years ago, a sixteen year old boy snuck out of his home to go out with his friends. Several hours later, that young man was shot to death by a local police officer, who claimed that the boy had tried to back over him while driving a stolen vehicle.
These were the basic facts presented to Valentin Rodriguez, a West Palm Beach attorney, by family members the following morning. As the family grieved and prepared themselves for the many details involved in burying their child, brother, grandson and nephew, Rodriguez mobilized an investigation to determine the facts behind the death.
According to Rodriguez, police shooting cases represent the most difficult challenges to litigation. “The hardest challenge,” he says, “is that there are rarely any civilian witnesses to rebut the officer’s version of events.”
The legal environment in Florida is also not conducive to substantial settlements. Statutory caps for municipalities and county agencies are set at $200,000 to $300,000. And because of lengthy appeals processes, it may take years to actually receive an award, should a prosecution prevail. Amounts in excess of the statutory caps are occasionally awarded by sympathetic juries in egregious cases, but the Florida legislature must approve payment of these awards. In the current difficult financial condition of the state, million-dollar awards are routinely passed over year after year.
Courts, too, are disinclined to rule against an officer. Rodriguez says that here in South Florida, overseen by the federal 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, justices there “don’t want to judge split-second decisions in hindsight” made by officers. Confrontations that result in police shootings most often take place in areas that are poorly lit, with no back-up immediately available, and with subjects who may not be complying with commands from the officer.
According to Rodriguez, the question presented to the trier of fact in police shootings is this: “Was the officer’s fear for his life or the lives of others reasonable or unreasonable?” He adds, “And how do you determine that?”
Rodriguez explains that agencies do critical incident team reviews for each incident, trying to determine how to improve training to avoid deadly confrontations.
“Most of the time, for officers,” Rodriguez says, “time is on your side. You can stay in your vehicle, call for back-up, and sit it out until help arrives.”
But that is not always the case, he admits. “Sometimes, it’s ‘shoot first, ask questions later.’”
For attorneys representing families of victims, there is rarely a sense of “winning justice.” Rodriguez says, “Public opinion goes against you, and finding a favorable jury is challenging.” Some metropolitan areas are more favorable than others, he claims. It’s easier to get a sympathetic jury in Miami, for instance, than it is in Fort Pierce.
The cases are expensive to underwrite, and few attorneys can afford to take them exclusively. Some families are in the position of hiring an investigator to assist in the collection of the limited reports available, conducting neighborhood canvasses to locate eye- or ear-witnesses, and to review the officer’s personnel and training files. But many families are not in a position to do so, further reducing the likelihood of success.
Still, attorneys like Rodriguez take police shooting cases routinely. “I build it into my civil and criminal defense case load,” he says. He enjoys the challenge and has tremendous empathy for the families of the victims, who often are more motivated by a sense of closure and explanation than by a possible financial settlement.
In the case of the young man killed by the officer mentioned above, Rodriguez was able to secure a settlement from the law enforcement agency. “The victim had participated in a sheriff’s program and was not known to be a problem,” he says. It was an unusual set of circumstances that secured the settlement, as the state attorney cleared the officer of any wrongdoing after reviewing the case.
But Rodriguez’s investigation identified witnesses who refuted the officer’s version of events. Those witnesses provided statements through an investigator retained by Rodriguez, which at least presented an opportunity for a potential jury to hear conflicting testimony about what happened that night.
In the end, there is little satisfaction for the family, but only a sense of closure, and the knowledge that some justice was found for their loved one.
“At least we can offer them that,” says Rodriguez. He is currently representing another family whose son was shot after fleeing from police.
If you are representing the family of a victim of a fatal police shooting, call the experienced legal investigators at Complete Legal Investigations, Inc. We can help you gather reports, conduct interviews, and examine the facts and circumstances to assist you in bringing closure and justice to your clients. Call us at 561-687-8381, or visit us at www.completelegalinv.com.