In 2012, Officer Michael Brelo stood up on the hood a vehicle occupied by an two unarmed African Americans, and fired fifteen shots through the windshield. Prior to firing fifteen shots, responding officers had fired nearly 100 shots at the same occupied vehicle. In a 35-page opinion, a Cuyahoga County judge recently ruled that the officer’s actions were “legally excused”, in part because the judge could not determine which officer fired the fatal shot.
The Court ruled, as a matter of law, that Officer Michael Brelo committed a crime when he fired fifteen shots while standing on the hood of an occupied vehicle. The Court stated that Brelo knew that his actions would probably result in death when he fired into the windshield. The Court further ruled that, as a matter of law, Officer Brelo acted in a sudden fit of rage or passion when he fired his weapon. Despite these findings, Officer Brelo was “legally excused” for committing the crime of felonious assault.
A grand jury indicted Officer Michael Brelo in 2012, finding sufficient evidence of voluntary manslaughter. In order to arrive at the conclusion, the grand jury had to find that Brelo acted in sudden fit or rage that caused the death of Timothy Russell and Mellissa Williams. Judge John O’Donnell, in a bench trial (trial without a jury), agreed with the grand jury’s assessment that Brelo acted in a sudden fit of rage or passion, but disagreed that Brelo’s actions were a “cause” of the death of Melissa Williams and Timothy Russell.
It’s hard to think of a scenario where a person jumped on the hood of an occupied vehicle, fires ten shots into the windshield, and gets off on a technicality by arguing that he didn’t cause the death of the vehicle occupants. Common sense suggests that if a person stands on the hood of a vehicle and fires fifteen times into the vehicle, that that person is a cause of the occupant’s death. Not in this case. In the case at hand, the Court stated that because officers fired over 100 shots into the occupied vehicle, it could not be determined which bullet killed the vehicle occupants. The Court ruled this way despite Officer Brelo’s own observation that he observed Timothy Russell and Melissa Williams moving in the vehicle just before he fired fifteen shots into the vehicle.
It is important note that no weapons were found in the vehicle. Judge O’Donnell conceded in his opinion that officers’ reports that they saw a gun in the vehicle were false. Several officers reported that the vehicle occupants: “pointed a gun”, “was possibly loading a weapon”, and “popped of a round”. No weapons were found in the subject vehicle. So what happens when officer make a mistake? Judge O’Donell provided an answer in his opinion, O’Donnell states as follows. “Even though no weapons were found, if a police officer’s perceptions were objectively reasonable, then his use of force is justified even if no weapon was seen, or the suspect was later found to be unarmed, or if what the officer mistook for a weapon was something innocuous.” In other words, even if an officer makes a mistake and thinks a weapon is present, he may be justified in using deadly force.
Therein lies a big problem. Just think of the number of things that people carry with them everyday that could be mistaken by an officer a weapon — a cell phone, an iPod, a sunglass case, a brush, a wallet, a pen, etc. Consider this scenario—an officer pulls over a teenager for a traffic stop on a dark road at night. While stopped on the side if the dark road, the teenager proceeds to grab his cell phone from his pocket to call his parents to let them know that he has been pulled over. The officer approaches the offending vehicle and. afraid for his life, the officer perceived the teenager pulling a black object from his pocket. The officer pulls his weapon, and fires. Under the case law cited by Judge O’Donnell, even though the officer made a mistake, his actions may be constitutionally justified if they were objectively reasonable. In the case at hand, 15 shots, even 100 shots, were considered excusable where officers mistakenly thought they heard or saw a gun.
This case highlights several flaws in our justice system. One county judge allowed an officer to go free where he found, as a matter of law, that officer committed a crime. No punishment was issued and the officer’s actions were “legally excused”. Officer Brelo’s actions were legally excused because he was afraid for his life, he simply made mistake, and too many officers fired at one time. Mr. Russell and Ms. Williams also made mistakes that night, but they will never see their homes again. What message does this court decision send to law enforcement officers? If we all shoot together, we will be “legally excused” for committing a crime.