Killing a man doesn't necessarily violate his constitutional rights, and the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) does not have to surrender evidence to prove otherwise.
The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week that a district court did not abuse its discretion by refusing to admit into evidence an internal MPD document finding that an MPD officer violated protocol by fatally wounding a man.
That description was a bit of a mouthful, so let's back up to the highlights, complete with names.
D.C. Detective Ken McConnell was driving in Southeast D.C. in 2007, when he observed an altercation inside a carryout restaurant. McConnell, who was wearing his badge while in plainclothes and an unmarked car, pulled over, walked into the restaurant, announced himself and soon found himself in a fight with Jason Taft.
Taft gained the advantage, and was choking McConnell when McConnell pulled out his service pistol and shot Taft in the leg. McConnell was disoriented and could not tell if Taft might be ready to resume the attack, so McConnell shot him two more times for good measure. Taft stumbled into the street and died later that night in the hospital.
Taft’s sister, Christol English, sued McConnell and the D.C. Police Department for $25 million, claiming that McConnell violated the excessive force provision of the Fourth Amendment by shooting Taft three times.
Internal Affairs investigated the matter and noted in its report that McConnell should have called for backup before entering the carryout. McConnell never made the call. McConnell also should have used pepper spray to subdue the suspect instead of going straight for his gun. McConnell was not even carrying pepper spray at the time.
Despite breaks in protocol, Internal Affairs found that McConnell’s first shot was “objectively reasonable.” The second and third shots? Not so much. MPD policy only permits the use of deadly force during an “actual or threatened attack that is imminent.”
English wanted to enter the Internal Affairs report into evidence at the civil trial; the district court found that the report was inadmissible.
English appealed, arguing that failure to admit the Internal Affairs report allowed the MPD to tank her case by pretending that McConnell’s actions were permissible while blocking her ability to refute that idea. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, finding that it was in the district court’s discretion to exclude the report. The circuit noted that “the record reveals that [the district court] properly excluded those parts of the report likely to confuse the jury and unfairly prejudice the government.”
We admit that we sometimes disagree with the Circuit Courts’ rulings, but most of those decisions are grounded in something conceivably related to good judgment.This D.C. Circuit Court decision does not seem to have that distinction.
Even at the risk of confusing the jury, the court should have admitted the report. The head of the MPD disciplinary division ultimately issued a formal notice to fire McConnell over this incident; a jury should be allowed to factor the Internal Affairs report that served as the basis for the McConnell’s firing into its decision.