Immunity and Police
On November 2, 2020, the Georgia Supreme Court vacated the trial court's ruling that the three police officers involved in the death of Eurie Lee Martin were immune from criminal prosecution. The case has been remanded back to the trial court for further consideration, which means that the officers may face criminal prosecution for their actions.
By way of background, Mr. Martin died on July 7, 2017 when he was repeatedly tased during an encounter with police officers. Although the entire encounter was not captured on video, some was captured on two of the officers' dashboard camera recording systems. The footage captured showed Martin refusing to respond to the officers' requests for information and continuing to walk, but was non-violent in nature. Mr. Martin is heard saying “Leave me alone,” “I ain't messin' with you, man” and “I ain't did nothing.” The men then went off screen and a physical altercation ensued. According to police officers, Mr. Martin took a defensive stance, threw down something he was holding, clenched his fists, and was about to fight them. Mr. Martin was unable to offer his version of events, because he was tased, handcuffed, became non-responsive, and ultimately died at the scene.
Following Martin's death, the police officers filed a motion seeking immunity from prosecution based upon reasonable belief that their use of force was necessary to defend themselves against an "imminent use of unlawful force." The motion was granted and the prosecution appealed the decision. The Supreme Court of Georgia found in favor of the prosecution. In so doing, the Supreme Court first held the trial court did not adequately consider whether the police officers were entitled to use force at all, since an officer may not use force to effectuate a "first-tier" encounter during which there is no basis to believe a citizen is involved in criminal activity. The Supreme Court directed the trial court to review the facts pertinent to this issue and address any inconsistencies in its original opinion.
Second, the Supreme Court held that to successfully avoid prosecution on the grounds that they were acting in self-defense, the police officers were required to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that use of potentially lethal force was based upon a reasonable belief that the force was necessary to prevent death or great bodily injury at the hands of the alleged victim or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony. The trial court had evaluated the officers' actions to determine if they were acting in self-defense but used the test to determine if the officers were justified in the course of making a lawful arrest, a completely different inquiry. The Supreme Court asked the trial court to properly apply the analysis, and to render findings of fact to determine if the actions taken by each individual officer was motivated by a reasonable belief that there was an imminent threat to his safety.
Whether the officers will face criminal prosecution for their actions will be determined when the trial court issues an opinion as directed by the Supreme Court of Georgia.