Civil Liberties

Missouri's Standard for Use of Deadly Force While Making an Arrest Is Absurdly Lax


In the wake of the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri last weekend, one of the key questions is whether the killing was legal under Missouri law. 

Crucials details of the incident, in which officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Brown, who was unarmed, are still unclear. 

But we can take a look at what the state has to say about when an officer can use deadly force by police while making an arrest.

Basically, the rules say that an officer has to "reasonably believe" that such force is necessary immediately in order to proceed with the arrest and also that the person either committed a felony or is a threat.

Here's the legalese:

3. A law enforcement officer in effecting an arrest or in preventing an escape from custody is justified in using deadly force only

(1) When such is authorized under other sections of this chapter; or

(2) When he reasonably believes that such use of deadly force is immediately necessary to effect the arrest and also reasonably believes that the person to be arrested

(a) Has committed or attempted to commit a felony; or

(b) Is attempting to escape by use of a deadly weapon; or

(c) May otherwise endanger life or inflict serious physical injury unless arrested without delay.

4. The defendant shall have the burden of injecting the issue of justification under this section.

(Via Sean Davis.)

So, the suspect doesn't have to be armed, and doesn't even have to present an immediate threat. Instead, if an officer believes that there's no other way to make the arrest happen, and also believes that the suspect has attempted to commit a felony, the officer is justified in using deadly force. If a cop wants to arrest someone, and has a "reasonable" belief that the person has even tried to commit a felony, he or she is allowed to kill.

That seems like a rather lax standard, and one that would give a pass to practically any arresting officer who could plausibly claim to have believed that the suspect had attempted or committed a felony offense. 

Update: At RealClearPolicy, Robert VerBruggen points out that although Missouri may not have updated the text of its law, an 80s Supreme Court ruling narrows the reasons an officer may use lethal force considerably, allowing deadly force only if the felon is believed dangerous.