Sunday, May 31, 2020

Eighth Circuit Absolves Another Minnesota Police Killing

On Friday, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit handed down its opinion in Kong v. City of Burnsville, a case regarding the killing by Burnsville police of an Asian-American man in the midst of a mental health crisis (Burnsville is a suburb of Minneapolis). The district court had denied qualified immunity to the officers, allowing the case to go to trial. On appeal, however, the Eighth Circuit (by 2-1 vote) reversed, holding that the officers' conduct did not violate clearly established law.

The facts of the case are complicated. Early one morning, Burnsville police received a report of suspicious activity in a McDonald's parking lot. A man (Kong) had been spotted sitting in his car for thirty minutes, waving a knife and jumping around. Officers arrived and at first passively monitored the situation. Then they asked the man to put down the knife; he was unresponsive. It was pretty evident that he was undergoing a mental health crisis, but he had not committed any felonies and did not appear to be an immediate threat to anyone.

Eventually, police broke the windows of his car and tased Kong twice. Kong did not drop the knife; he stumbled out of the car and broke out running towards the street where traffic was still driving by. At that point, police officers opened fire, striking and killing him (one bullet lodged in the bumper of a passing vehicle).

The majority held that it was not clearly established that the police could not open fire in this scenario. They contended instead that the officers reasonably perceived Kong as posing an imminent safety threat to the civilians driving by. Judge Kelly, in dissent, pointed out that it was obvious that Kong was undergoing a mental health crisis and he had never threatened anyone, and that in any event people in cars would not be in especial danger from someone holding a knife. A jury could therefore conclude that the decision to open fire on Kong was excessive.

I personally think this is legally a close case -- though close cases I think are generally best left to juries rather than plucked out by judges. But given the current circumstances in the Twin Cities and around the country, I thought it was noteworthy that this case was handed down this Friday, and wanted to give out the facts.

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