Federal Government Undertakes Ferguson Shooting Investigation

Riots and protests across Ferguson, Missouri have spurred the federal government into action this week with United States Attorney General Eric Holder traveling to the area to ensure a fair and complete investigation into the police shooting death of Michael Brown. Although the US Government has the authority to prosecute the police officer responsible for shooting Brown, the applicable federal law forges a difficult, and likely untenable, path to conviction.

FBI Investigates Michael Brown Police Shooting

In an effort to lend gravitas to the federal government’s efforts to ease tension in Ferguson, Mr. Holder announced that he will personally oversee a FBI probe into the police shooting of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson. Although Holder has noted that his office intends to “supplement and not supplant” local investigation into the incident, the federal government has authority to prosecute Officer Wilson under Section 242 of Title 18 of the U.S. Code. The “Deprivation of Rights Under Color of Law” section makes it a federal crime for any person acting “under color of law” to willfully deprive someone of a constitutional right, and it is clear that members of the civil rights community in Ferguson support federal involvement.  

Civil rights groups distrusting of local authorities have called for Holder and the federal government to intervene, and potentially take over, a racially charged investigation into the shooting death of Michael Brown, a black teenager, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. Although the details of the incident are unclear, Brown was shot at least 6 times while, according to witnesses, holding his hands in the air in an effort to avoid violent conflict. The resulting unrest among Ferguson’s predominantly black population has led to occasionally explosive confrontations with local police and members of the National Guard, causing Mr. Holder to intervene.

Attorney General Hopes Federal Investigation Quiets Violent Ferguson Protests

Writing an op-ed to the members of Ferguson’s community, Holder promised a thorough investigation and called for an end to the acts of violence that have occurred throughout the town in recent days. "We understand the need for an independent investigation, and we hope that the independence and thoroughness of our investigation will bring some measure of calm to the tensions in Ferguson. In order to begin the healing process, however, we must first see an end to the acts of violence in the streets of Ferguson," Holder wrote in an open letter to the protestors. Encouraging peaceful gatherings designed to convey legitimate concerns over police discrimination, Holder expressed assurances that the federal investigation would be a fair and complete assessment of the events that led to Michael’s death.

Holder went on to stress the importance of law enforcement, but noted that the public and the police must forge a bond of trust in order to remedy the deep-seeded problems that came to a head after Brown’s tragic death. After calling for an end to violence and rioting, Holder concluded, "This is my pledge to the people of Ferguson: Our investigation into this matter will be full, it will be fair, and it will be independent. And beyond the investigation itself, we will work with the police, civil rights leaders, and members of the public to ensure that this tragedy can give rise to new understanding -- and robust action -- aimed at bridging persistent gaps between law enforcement officials and the communities we serve.”

Federal Prosecution Forges Difficult Path

Although the presence of Eric Holder and the FBI may have the desired effect of calming Ferguson protestors and giving civil rights leaders confidence that the Brown shooting investigation is untainted by local authorities, it is unlikely the federal government will be able to successfully prosecute Officer Wilson. The Deprivation of Rights Under the Color of Law provision of federal law makes criminal intentional acts by public officials which deny citizens civil rights, and the law has rarely been used successfully in prosecuting police officers for shootings – even when evidence of excessive force is present.

Federal law requires prosecutors prove intent, meaning that a jury must be convinced beyond all reasonable doubt that the police officer acted willfully with bad motive to cause harm. Given that the DOJ would have to satisfy such a difficult-to-prove standard, potential prosecution of Officer Wilson may find more success at the state level where reckless or negligent action – both of which are easier to demonstrate – is criminalized. While the government’s investigation may reveal sufficient evidence to prove malicious intent on the part of Officer Wilson, it is likely that Holder’s involvement will not extend to criminal prosecution.

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