Here’s Why an Officer was Legally Allowed to Shoot David Sweat in the Back

By Published on July 1, 2015

New York State Police Sgt. Jay Cook shot escaped prisoner David Sweat twice, reportedly in the back, while he ran away Sunday and was called a hero. This raises the question: Was it legally OK for the officer to shoot the unarmed man as he fled?

While the entire situation is still under investigation, it appears Cook is likely in the clear.

Here’s why.

The fleeing felon law provides guidelines and case precedent for police in this exact scenario. Police cannot just shoot anyone who’s fleeing, the ruling explains. But, if an officer reasonably believes a fleeing suspect will imminently harm someone, then deadly force is authorized.

The Department of Justice has addressed this scenario as well. According to a key Attorney General memo, an officer may use deadly force on a fleeing individual if they meet two qualifications:

1. “The subject has committed a felony involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical injury or death.”

2. “The escape of the subject would pose an imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to the officer or to another person.”

Sweat was convicted for killing a cop years ago, so it could be reasonable to believe he would have harmed someone had he escaped. The penal law of the state of New York, Article 35, has a similar provision and even allows for the shooting of anyone escaping from a detention facility, such as a prison, because that person is assumed to be dangerous.

“There cannot be any cleaner situation than this one,” Maria Haberfeld, head of the law and police science department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told NBC News. “You cannot shoot any fleeing felon, but certainly you can shoot the one who poses a real threat. There was no reason to believe this person who had killed a police officer before was not posing a real threat.”

Up until 1986, officers could shoot any fleeing felon. But in 1986 the Supreme Court took up Tennessee v. Garner, a case where a Memphis police officer responded to the scene of a burglary and shot a man fleeing the scene. The man turned out to be an unarmed 15-year-old boy and the shot was a fatal head wound.

This case led to the addition of certain conditions to police shooting fleeing felons. Most importantly, officers must have ”probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.”


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Copyright 2015 The Daily Caller News Foundation

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