Police groups sue over Minnesota deadly force law

A police car attempts to leave a scene and is blocked by a crowd.
A squad car is blocked by protesters as it attempts to leave the neighborhood where Daunte Wright was killed during a traffic stop earlier in the day in Brooklyn Center, Minn., on April 11.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

Updated 6:00 p.m.

A coalition of Minnesota law enforcement groups sued Friday over a recently enacted law that changed the standard for justified use of deadly force by police.

Their lawsuit challenges a 2020 law on the grounds it would violate an officer’s constitutional right against self incrimination. The law went into effect this March.

Efforts to either redo the law again or pause it failed to advance in the now-concluded special session.

The Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association and the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association and Law Enforcement Labor Services filed the lawsuit in Ramsey County District Court. Gov. Tim Walz and the state are named as defendants.

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“Our office is reviewing the lawsuit and will work with the Legislature to determine whether clarifying language is necessary,” a spokesperson for Walz said.

The deadly force law underwent a major rewrite following George Floyd’s death in the custody of four Minneapolis police officers last May. Ex-officer Derek Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd’s neck until his body went limp, was convicted of murder and was sentenced last week to 22.5 years in prison. The three others on scene that day await trials.

The new standard narrowed the conditions for when lethal force is deemed appropriate and depends on an officer articulating an imminent threat.

The police groups contend that officers weren’t given enough time to be trained on the new standards. And they point to decisions by departments in bordering states to stop assisting in critical incidents in Minnesota as a sign of concern.

“The use of deadly force is one of the most critical aspects of a police officer’s duties. Minnesota’s police chiefs are committed to training officers to the highest standards possible,” Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association Executive Director Jeff Potts said in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “The law must be constitutional in order to ensure a transparent process and a just outcome for everyone involved in these types of cases.”

Backers of the law change held it up as an important step in the police accountability push. They contend that officers resort to deadly force too quickly in tense encounters and that prosecutors had struggled to bring charges due to the way the old law was written.

Now, force is considered justified only when necessary to prevent great harm or death to an officer or bystander. It can’t be unreasonably delayed from the actual threat. And based on all of the circumstances known at the time, the action “can be articulated with specificity by the peace officer” that force was properly used. 

“The right to self-defense is embodied in centuries of Anglo-American law and non-police officers presenting an affirmative defense of self-defense to a charge of the unauthorized use of deadly force maintain their constitutional rights not to testify,” the lawsuit reads. “Therefore, a police officer faced with the same circumstances as a non-police officer is afforded fewer rights than a similarly situated civilian.”

One police trainer told department chiefs in February that it could require officers to make a clear case that a suspect was armed and ready to use a gun, not just acting in a way that made the officer suspect a weapon was present.

More and more in critical incidents, officers involved are declining to sit for questions with investigators. The new law could have been construed to compel some kind of official statement from officers during investigations, which would clash with their right to stay quiet if they choose.

House Public Safety Chair Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, was involved in crafting the standard. He said the same police groups now suing were involved in writing the law.

“The standard itself was pretty carefully negotiated last summer with law enforcement at the table every single step of the way,” Mariani said. “What became law was language that law enforcement representatives helped to shape and they signed off on.”

The Legislature is expected to return to the debate in the 2022 session. The court case could take many months or longer to resolve.

Mariani said the courts will have a difficult job.

“What is the right balance of personal discretion on the part of our licensed peace officers with the constitutional right for civil liberties and the human rights of individuals?” Mariani said. “We’re talking about the ultimate decision.”