Minn. judge allows enforcement of law requiring justification of police use of force

Police investigate the scene of an officer-involved shooting.
Police investigate the scene of an officer-involved shooting in June 2018 in Minneapolis. A Minnesota judge on Friday reinstated a new law dictating justified use of deadly force by police after he modified it to address a constitutional flaw.
Aaron Lavinsky | Star Tribune via AP file 2018

Updated: Dec. 18, 9:30 a.m.

A Minnesota judge has reinstated a new law dictating justified use of deadly force by police after he modified it to address a constitutional flaw.

Ramsey County District Court Judge Leonardo Castro had previously put the law on hold. His latest ruling declines to toss the law entirely. Instead, he struck five words that he says will remove an expectation that officers outline why they used force.

The ruling is a split decision for the law enforcement groups that sued. They had argued the 2020 law that took hold in March could force officers to incriminate themselves.

The new law says deployment of lethal force must be justified with specificity. But Castro cut the words “by the law enforcement officer” — that means the justification could be based on an objectively reasonable standard for officers generically.

“It is beyond this court’s comprehension how training is provided to prepare police officers to make split-second, life-and-death decisions,” Castro wrote. “And although understanding of the need to provide such training, plaintiffs seek a remedy that is not this court’s right to give.”

The judge added: “Having remedied the constitutional infraction within the Revised Statute, this court must immediately give it the full force and effect intended by the Legislature.”

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In issuing his ruling late Friday, Castro lifted his prior suspension of the law. He said courts can work around any problems as they craft jury instructions.

The Hennepin County judge presiding over the trial of former police officer Kimberly Potter in the on-duty killing of Daunte Wright is expected to instruct the jury on Monday. The defense concluded its case Friday.

In a statement, Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association Executive Director Brian Peters said Friday's ruling "means officers will not be compelled to forfeit their Fifth Amendment constitutional right to remain silent. Law enforcement is now on equal footings as all citizens in Minnesota.”

Bill Hutton, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association, said in a statement after the ruling that some law enforcement agencies in neighboring states had refused to assist Minnesota agencies, citing a lack of clarity in the new law.

Lawmakers who’ve backed the new law have said the prior law — under which an apparent threat facing officers was enough to justify force — often got in the way of police accountability. They said that officers could resort too quickly to deadly force in tense situations and then tell investigators that they — or others in the public — faced an apparent threat. As a result, they said prosecutors often refused to bring charges.