Federal and State Authorities and the Michael Brown Shooting Death
By Kendall Coffey
The fatal shooting of unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri has captured attention around the world, not only for a tragic death but also for the images of heavily armed police forces confronting protestors. Ironically, while the United States has criticized heavy handed displays of police forces and weapons confronting protestors in other countries, we are now seeing some of the same disturbing images in the heartland of America.
Hoping to address community concerns while invoking the proper role of federal law enforcement, the U.S. government launched scores of F.B.I. agent to examine whether federal laws have been violated. Although a few have questioned whether this federal effort is responding to political pressures, the reality is that it is highly appropriate for U.S. authorities to investigate actions of police who kill civilians, since such actions, depending upon the evidence, could violate U.S. civil rights laws. At the same time that the federal investigation is continuing, it is ordinarily the state and local authorities have who have the primary role in investigating shooting deaths and other crimes of violence. Thus, under our U.S. Constitution the federal government, as well as state authorities, have separate, distinct, but extremely important roles. Although duplication might seem possible, each governmental authority is investigating the enforcement of its own laws rather than repeating the enforcement of the laws of a different jurisdiction.
In such cases, a defendant can be prosecuted not only under federal laws for civil rights crimes, but also under state homicide laws. Because there are different governments, even an acquittal under, for example, federal laws would not prevent a separate prosecution under state’s laws because there are separate jurisdictions for the separate prosecutions.
Thus, the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown could be prosecuted by both federal and state prosecutors, by only one prosecution authority, or by neither. This is a well settled principal of our jurisprudence. It represents the legacy of the founders of our country who created a national government while assuring that it would not displace the vital role of state governments in our constitutional system.