With the events in Ferguson, Missouri all over the news, there is a lot of information, and a lot of misinformation, about when a police officer can use deadly force against a person. By deadly force, at least in Florida, we mean force that is likely to cause death or a serious injury. An obvious example would be when a police officer shoots someone.
In Florida, a police officer can use deadly force in certain situations. Like anyone else, a police officer can use deadly force if it is reasonably necessary to do so for self defense or to protect another person from imminent serious injury or death. More specific to a police officer’s duties, a police officer may use deadly force if necessary to prevent a person from escaping jail, prison or custody while he/she is awaiting trial. A police officer can also use deadly force to arrest someone fleeing from a crime if the police officer reasonably believes the suspect is a threat to him/herself or others or if the officer believes the suspect is fleeing a crime involving the infliction or threat of infliction of serious harm to others.
The deadly force law in Florida gives a police officer a lot of leeway in using deadly force against suspects. The law is clearly not limited to situations where self defense or defense of others is an issue. A police officer in Florida is allowed to use deadly force in many situations where the suspect is believed to be escaping certain situations, without of course, having to meet the high evidentiary standard used in criminal cases
However, what often happens, and it may be happening in the Ferguson, Missouri case, after the police shoot an apparently unarmed person, the police and/or prosecutor’s office start digging into the deceased’s background to see if the deceased had a criminal history. Many people think it is justified for the police to shoot someone if we later learn the deceased had a criminal history. That is a common tactic but not one that is particularly relevant if we follow the law. Of course, if the deceased was fleeing from a serious crime at the time of the police shooting, that would certainly be relevant. But, the fact that the deceased was arrested for marijuana possession three years ago, or any number of other crimes in the past, is not likely relevant to whether a police officer was justified in shooting him/her at a later date.