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The 2020 law—a DFL priority police reform—might be unconstitutional, judge rules
A controversial law enacted in 2020 governing the use of deadly force by peace officers may be unconstitutional, Ramsey County District Court Chief Judge Leonardo Castro has ruled.
Castro ordered a temporary injunction against the enforcement of the amended Minn. Stat. § 609.066, which took effect on March 1, 2021. The case is Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, et al. v. Walz, et al.
Other named plaintiffs include the Minnesota Sheriff’s Association, Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association and Law Enforcement Labor Services, Inc. The state is named as a second respondent.
The lawsuit challenges a provision of the statute that outlines when deadly force by an officer is justified and serves as an affirmative defense for the officer.
It provides that the force be necessary to protect the officer or another from great bodily harm. But the law comes with a possibly unconstitutional catch, Castro ruled, in that it requires that the officer articulate with specificity the threat of great bodily harm.
That, the judge found, would require the officer at trial to testify and expose himself or herself to cross-examination. Plaintiffs argue that the statute violates the right against self-incrimination found in both the state and federal constitutions.
Plaintiffs seek a declaratory judgment that the requirement that an officer specifically articulate the threat is unconstitutional. They also ask the court to delay the effective date of the statute until proper training of officers can be developed and provided.
Plaintiffs argue that the heads of local and state law enforcement agencies have been unable to provide training because the agencies that would typically develop the training—the Department of Public Safety and the Minnesota Peace Officer Standards and Training Board—have not done so. Most Minnesota officers have not been trained on the new statute, they contend.
‘Before it’s too late’
Organizational standing exists where the statute impedes the police organizations’ missions and associational standing permits an organization to sue on behalf of its members. A liberal standard applies to organizational standing and requires, at the pleading stage, only an allegation of injury from the challenged conduct.
Associational standing requires that the organization’s members have standing as individuals; that the interests that the organization seeks to protect are germane to its purpose; and that neither the claim asserted, nor the relief requested, requires the participation of individual members.
Plaintiffs allege that their members are subject to an infringement of a constitutionally protected fundamental right, which at this stage of the proceeding the court accepted as true. Application of the possibly unconstitutional statute is not speculative and hypothetical, but rather actual and imminent, Castro observed.
Castro also held that the claim is ripe. The use of the affirmative defense is not hypothetical but is real, probable and more than likely to be exercised as more and more police officers are charged with murder and manslaughter, the judge said.
“Plaintiffs need not wait for one of its members to be charged with a homicide crime before the question of the constitutionality of the provision plaintiffs challenge is answered. The uncertainty and insecurity would be unconscionable,” Castro said.
He also said that training programs should not be based on an unconstitutional premise, and it is best to know “now before it is too late” whether the law can stand.
Likelihood of success
The court applied the Dahlberg factors to the question of injunctive relief. Those factors are the relationship between the parties; the balance of harm by a ruling to the parties; likelihood of success on the merits; the public interest and the administrative burden to the court of enforcement and supervision.
Relief should be based on the factors as a whole, but the likelihood of success on the merits is the most important, the judge continued.
Here, he ruled, the likelihood of success on the merits is high and favors temporary injunctive relief. Castro continued:
“Unlike some other states, our Minnesota Supreme Court has not adopted the restrictive view that a defendant must testify and provide direct evidence of his or her state of mind in order to be entitled to [a jury] instruction on self-defense.”
A defendant may show his state of mind by circumstantial evidence, Castro continued.
Getting it right ‘imperative’
Continuing, Castro wrote, “[T]he public policy implications are severe and it is imperative that we get this right.”
Concluding that the public interest heavily favors a temporary injunction, the judge continues:
“The revised statute is one of those legal guidelines that requires proper training from our law enforcement leaders. If the challenged provision is unconstitutional and a conviction is reversed as a result, the divide between law enforcement and the public will only get wide and it will work to create a greater mistrust. The public interest that law enforcement officers be guided by a law that is not unconstitutional is of immense importance.”
The balance of harm analysis favored the temporary injunction, the court concluded. The plaintiffs ask for time and guidance before providing training, and Castro agreed.
“If police officers are uncertain when it is appropriate to use deadly force, the harm will likely be irreparable,” the court said.
Furthermore, the case presents an ongoing and concrete harm to the state’s law enforcement and public safety interests, the court added.
Castro then stayed the statute, leaving the pre-amendment law in place, and ordered parties to present a briefing and oral argument schedule within 10 days of the order.
Arguments will be within 60 days. The issues to be briefed are whether the statue is unconstitutional and, if it is, whether it is severable.
The powerful GOP Senate Judiciary and Public Safety chair Warren Limmer welcomed the order.
In a press release, he said:
“After hearing from law enforcement about their concerns with the new standards—which were repeatedly brought up and rebuffed by DFL leaders—I’m grateful for the court’s wisdom in this decision today. The new law also raised serious concern from border cities and neighboring states, which put our communities at risk.”
Rep. Brian Johnson, a retired law enforcement officer and the GOP lead on House Public Safety, expressed similar sentiments. In a press release, he said:
“I’m glad to see that the court sided with law enforcement in recognizing that the new standards for use of force are unworkable. Democrats blocked bipartisan changes that would have addressed the problem with the use of a force standard, ignoring the concerns from law enforcement and the public. Fixing this half-baked policy should be a top priority next session.”