DAO Urges PA Supreme Court to Rule Police Use of Force Law Must Be Interpreted to Comply With Constitution
Jane Roh, 215–686–8711, Jane.Roh@phila.gov
Brief Filed Ahead of Murder Trial of Ryan Pownall for Shooting Unarmed Black Man in the Back
PHILADELPHIA (July 1, 2021) — District Attorney Larry Krasner on Thursday filed a brief with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court arguing that the state statute regarding use of force by law enforcement does not meet the standard set by the U.S. Supreme Court, and therefore should be interpreted to comport with constitutional standards: tinyurl.com/PennsylvaniaSC.
The Court announced in April that it would hear all three questions presented in a petition by the District Attorney’s Office (DAO) challenging Pennsylvania’s police use of force statute, 18 Pa.C.S. § 508(a)(1), which, unless interpreted as the DAO advocates, would permit the use of deadly force in situations that are unconstitutional. The DAO petition does not ask the court to intervene as lawmakers and rewrite the statute; rather, it asks that courts instruct juries on constitutional use of force by law enforcement when material to the Commonwealth’s pursuit of justice.
Recent legislative attempts to correct the statute have not advanced in the Pennsylvania General Assembly. But, the DAO brief states, “While the Constitution cannot force a state to criminalize what it has not already, it can prohibit a state from unconstitutionally exempting a class of individuals from conduct that is already criminal,” which Section 508(a)(1) as written currently does.
In Tennessee v. Garner, the U.S. Supreme Court held: “The use of deadly force to prevent the escape of all felony suspects, whatever the circumstances, is constitutionally unreasonable. It is not better that all felony suspects die than that they escape…. A police officer may not seize an unarmed, nondangerous suspect by shooting him dead.”
Unless interpreted as the DAO urges, Pennsylvania Section 508(a)(1) would violate Garner because it would allow law enforcement officers to use deadly force to prevent escape even when the suspect does not pose a risk of death or serious bodily injury to others. This statute could put members of the public at grave risk of having their rights violated and of being subjected to bodily injury and even death by police officers with no legal consequence.
The DAO brief was filed ahead of the trial of former Philadelphia police officer Ryan Pownall, for the fatal shooting of David Jones in the back on June 8, 2017. Pownall was later fired by then-Police Commissioner Richard Ross for violating department rules.
Pownall had pulled Jones over for riding an illegal dirt bike while he was transporting a family to be interviewed about a crime committed against one of two children in his vehicle. An Investigating Grand Jury, which recommended Pownall be prosecuted for murder, determined that the former officer had shot Jones in the back while he was fleeing and unarmed, thus posing no immediate danger to the officer or the public. The Grand Jury also recommended that Pownall be charged with Possession of an Instrument of Crime and Recklessly Endangering Another Person, for shooting in the direction of traffic and putting others in danger.
“What our office is asking for, on behalf of the Commonwealth, is that our courts adhere to the U.S. Constitution to ensure the rights of the public and defendants are protected,” DA Krasner said. “Equal accountability under the law for persons suspected of criminal behavior and armed police officers alike is a matter of great urgency for public safety and trust in our most powerful institutions. When that trust is broken — as it was when David Jones was unjustifiably killed in 2017, when George Floyd was brutalized in 2020, and too many times before and since — America cannot truly be at peace.”
Notably, the Philadelphia Police Department’s own directive states, “Police Officers shall not use deadly force against another person, unless they have an objectively reasonable belief that they must protect themselves or another person from death or serious bodily injury.”
“We are optimistic that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision to consider our petition signals that the justices understand the perilous stakes of the issues at hand,” DA Krasner continued. “An adverse ruling would have tragic consequences for the people of the Commonwealth, and would further undermine trust and cooperation in the criminal justice system at a time when gun violence is unacceptably high and far too many shootings remain unsolved by police.”
Amicus briefs supporting the DAO’s petition were filed by nearly 70 current and former prosecutors and law enforcement leaders, and by the ACLU of Pennsylvania. Signatories to the brief from law enforcement leaders include Darrel Stephens, a former police chief and executive director of the Major City Chiefs Association, and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who recently secured the murder conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the death of George Floyd.
In addition to Pownall, the DAO is also prosecuting former Philadelphia police officer Eric Ruch for fatally shooting Dennis Plowden, an unarmed Black man, following a car chase in 2017.
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office is the largest prosecutor’s office in Pennsylvania, and one of the largest in the nation. It serves the more than 1.5 million residents of the City and County of Philadelphia, employing 600 lawyers, detectives, and support staff. The District Attorney’s Office is responsible for prosecution of approximately 40,000 criminal cases annually.