New law could mean hurdles for trooper charged in fatal shooting of motorist

However, convictions of law enforcement officers are still rare

A photo of a screen playing a body cam video
A screenshot from a body-worn camera shows Minnesota State Troopers responding to a traffic stop, shown during a Department of Public Safety press conference in St. Paul on Aug. 1.
Matt Sepic | MPR News 2013

Murder, assault and manslaughter charges against a Minnesota State Patrol trooper who fatally shot a motorist last July could test a state law revised in the wake of George Floyd’s killing that aims to force officers to better specify the reasons they used deadly force.

Even so, legal experts say charges and convictions of on-duty law enforcement officers for taking a civilian’s life are still quite rare.

It was on the early morning of July 31 that Ricky Cobb II’s car was stopped by state troopers on Interstate 94 in Minneapolis. Cobb was fatally shot by Trooper Ryan Londregan as troopers sought to force Cobb from his car. 

man in suit stands in crowd
Minnesota State Trooper Ryan Londregan stands among supporters after making his first court appearance on Monday.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

Minnesota’s statute governing police use of deadly force requires that it be necessary to protect the officer or someone else from death or great bodily harm. The law was revised following George Floyd’s killing in 2020 to require more specific details about the threat perceived by the officer.

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Joshua Esmay, deputy director of community legal services for the Legal Rights Center, said this case could provide a test for the new, more narrow language in the law. 

“Was it objectively reasonable for the officer to fear great bodily harm to themselves or another person and was it reasonably likely that threat would happen, with it being necessary that they use force to address that threat?” Esmay said. “It requires more specificity.”

Getting at the core language of the statute, Londregan’s defense attorneys have already filed a motion arguing that Londregan’s partner feared that he’d be run over as Cobb’s car accelerated.

Late last month, the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office charged Londregan with second-degree unintentional murder, first-degree assault and second-degree manslaughter. Esmay said prosecutors need to first prove the underlying felony assault charge before they can prove the unintentional murder charge.

“The basic structure of the charges is what’s called felony murder doctrine,” Esmay said. “The way that it works is that it’s murder in the second degree, so unintentional murder, if the state can prove the defendant caused the death of the victim through or while engaging in another felony-level offense” like first-degree assault.

Esmay expects the prosecution will focus on the troopers’ training and the agency’s policies, including that they are trained not to shoot into a moving vehicle. He says the defense will likely argue that the vehicle itself was a potentially deadly weapon.

Civil rights and defense attorney Paul Applebaum expects Cobb’s criminal record to factor into the case because troopers did a search while he was stopped. But he said it will likely be a tough case for Londregan based on the language of the law.

”All you need to do is think, well, he’s just driving away,” Applebaum said. “He’s not in the act of a violent felony or made any threats or displayed any threats.”

The atmosphere around the case has already become heated. Londregan’s defense attorney Chris Madel has described the prosecution as “open season on law enforcement” and Londregan’s supporters organized a protest of more than 70 former and current police officers outside the courthouse this week.

Applebaum said trying to mold public opinion can be a “high-wire act” for the defense.

“I don’t criticize the defense lawyer for doing that because he’s got to play every card he has and the public relations part of it is one piece,” Applebaum said.

Applebaum said it’s also not clear why Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty didn’t follow her original plan of consulting a use of force expert before charges were filed. He said it should be expected that both the defense and prosecution will bring in their own use of force experts if the case goes to trial.

Angi Porter, assistant professor at American University Washington College of Law, said Moriarty’s experience working on criminal defense cases as the former lead public defender in the county could help inform her office’s approach to the case.

Porter said the case contains echoes of other high-profile shootings by law enforcement, including the deaths of Justine Rusczyzk and Daunte Wright.

“[As] someone who has followed these cases, it makes you cringe and sort of roll your eyes in frustration because it’s as if there hasn’t been policy-level change, cultural change,” Porter said. “And that’s the change that everybody wanted to see.”

She expects to see the prosecution also address the recklessness of firing a gun in an enclosed space like a car, especially considering that Londregan’s partner was on the other side of the vehicle in the direction he fired.

“Specifically, the conduct of the trooper interacting with someone in a vehicle, immediately escalating to deadly force after Ricky Cobb expressed confusion about being arrested, not slowing down in that moment, not giving him the information he should have been privy to, the reason for his arrest,” Porter said.

About 1,000 people are killed each year by on-duty law enforcement officers in the United States, according to a database maintained by the Washington Post. It’s a number that has been pretty steady even in recent years as the public focused on police use of deadly force on civilians. Black Americans like Cobb are killed by police at more than twice the rate of white Americans, according to the Post’s reporting.

Convictions are rare, though, according to Phil Stinson, a professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University. According to Stinson’s data, between 10-20 officers are charged with murder or manslaughter each year. Fewer than a third of the officers charged since 2005 have been convicted. 

”Juries are very reluctant to second guess the split-second, often life-or-death decision, by on-duty police officers in potentially violent street encounters,” Stinson said. “Jurors don’t want to put themselves in that situation, they don’t want to second guess officers.”

Londregan is on administrative leave from the Minnesota State Patrol. His next court appearance is scheduled for the end of April.