By Jacqueline Rodriguez and Sydney Kaplan
PHILADELPHIA, PA – District Attorney Larry Krasner filed a brief with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court arguing that Pennsylvania’s statute 18 Pa.C.S. § 508(a)(1) regarding use of force by law enforcement should be revised to meet Constitutional standards.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed to hear out Krasner’s brief in April, 2021. The brief challenged Pennsylvania’s police use of force statute, 18 Pa.C.S. § 508(a)(1), and argued that the statute had to be modified in order to prevent the use of deadly force in unconstitutional situations.
It stated, “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.
Instead of asking the courts to intervene as lawmakers, Krasner asked the courts to “instruct juries on constitutional use of force by law enforcement when material to the Commonwealth’s pursuit of justice.”
In the case of 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, non-dangerous suspect by shooting him dead.”
If section 508(a)(1) is not revised, Krasner argues that it violates the ruling from Tennessee v. Garner because it would allow law enforcement officers to legally use deadly force to prevent a suspect from escaping even in the case where “the suspect does not pose a risk of death, or serious bodily injury to others.”
Krasner filed his brief ahead of the trial of former Philadelphia police officer Ryan Pownall, who was facing charges for fatally shooting David Jones on June 8, 2017. Pownall was later fired after the incident by former Police Commissioner Richard Ross, for violating department rules.
Pownall had pulled Jones over initially for driving an illegal dirt bike. Jones was fleeing the scene unarmed when he was shot in the back by former Officer Pownall. The Investigating Grand Jury found Pownall guilty of murder because Jones posed no imminent safety threat to the officer or to the public.
Because Pownall shot into traffic, the Grand Jury also recommended Pownall be charged with reckless endangerment and possession of an instrument of crime.
In addition to Pownall, the DAO is also prosecuting Eric Ruch, a former Philadelphia police officer who fatally shot Dennis Plowman, an unarmed Black man, during a car chase in 2017.
“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,” DA Krasner said.
He added, “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.”
Nearly 70 current and former prosecutors, law enforcement leaders, and members of the ACLU have filed amicus briefs in support of Krasner’s petition.
Most notably, these leaders include Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who secured the murder conviction for Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd.
“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 said.
“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,” he added.