Have police officers really joined the ranks of the general public when it comes to avoiding criminal charges by invoking Florida’s “stand your ground” self-defense law?
Ex-Palm Beach Gardens cop Nouman Raja, who shot and killed stranded motorist Corey Jones in 2015, is getting a chance to make such a claim following court rulings in another high-profile officer shooting case from Broward.
Sheriff’s Deputy Peter Peraza last summer won an appeal over the dismissal of a manslaughter charge in a 2013 shooting. He argued cops are protected by the law that permits ordinary citizens to use lethal force and not retreat if faced with a deadly threat.
Jones’ family, already frustrated by their wait for justice, calls it “an absolute insult” for Raja to seek the dismissal of the charges before going to a jury.
Benjamin Crump, a national civil rights attorney who represents Jones’ father, noted that Raja’s lawyers filed the “stand your ground” claim on the 27-month anniversary of Jones’ “slaughter.”
“At a minimum, Corey’s life should be valued enough and his memory honored enough to insist that Officer Raja stands trial,” Crump wrote in a statement.
Former federal prosecutor and current Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber — a longtime “stand your ground” opponent — said cops have always been held to different standards than the public concerning the use of deadly force.
“Stand your ground is not consistent with the training for police officers, who are supposed to use the least force necessary,” he said. “You don’t want to take away their rights as citizens, but can they be a police officer if they are not going to follow their rules of engagement? It’s a fascinating question.”
Raja’s attorneys says their request for immunity from prosecution can proceed because the Peraza case set a precedent for it.
Charged in the killing of a man toting an air rifle in Oakland Park, Peraza argued cops, like everyone else, can be covered by “stand your ground.”
The law holds that “a person” does not have to back off and can legally use deadly force if he or she reasonably believes doing so is necessary “to prevent imminent death.”
The appellate court upheld a Broward judge’s ruling that Peraza, as a law enforcement officer, had a right as any person would to assert a “stand your ground” defense — and, based on the facts of the case, also deserved to have the charge dismissed before a trial.
The decision clashed with a 2012 opinion from another appeals court. That ruling, in the case of a Southwest Florida police officer, said cops are only covered by a different state law specific to officers that addresses justifiable use of force during an arrest.
Under that law, an officer facing charges has no choice but to wait for a trial and sweat out a verdict.
The Florida Supreme Court is expected to settle the conflict and decide whether police officers everywhere in the state can pursue claims under “stand your ground,” a law that has stoked controversy since it was adopted in 2005.
But for now, because of the Peraza ruling, officers charged criminally in a region that includes Palm Beach and Broward counties may seek such protection under the same law for the general public. Raja claims Jones pointed a handgun at him first, so he fired in self-defense.
Eric Schwartzreich, one of the police union lawyers who defended Peraza, says the appellate court ruling is a big deal because under “stand your ground,” cops can argue for charges to be tossed by the judge.
“It’s a hot button topic,” Schwartzreich said, stressing that police officers who risk their lives should get the same legal benefits as anyone else in society.
Piggybacking on Peraza, Raja’s legal team requested a mini-trial of sorts before the judge only, where prosecutors will have the burden of proving why Raja is not entitled to have his charges thrown out.
“Officer Raja faced a man who pointed a gun at him, and did what any citizen is entitled to do: he defended himself,” argued defense attorney Richard Lubin. “No ordinary citizen would be prosecuted for Officer Raja’s conduct.”
Lubin called the shooting of Jones, a 31-year-old Delray Beach city housing inspector and a part-time musician, “wholly justifiable.”
Prosecutors won’t comment on their strategy moving forward, and they have not yet filed a written response to the “stand your ground” claim.
But in previous court filings, they’ve leaned on the recording of a phone call between Jones and a roadside assistance operator that captured sounds just before and during the shooting at 3:15 a.m. Oct. 18, 2015 along an Interstate 95 off-ramp.
Prosecutors say the evidence shows Raja was “grossly negligent” because he pulled up to Jones’ disabled SUV in an unmarked cargo van, stepped out in jeans, a T-shirt and a ball cap, and failed to identify himself as a police officer. Raja has insisted he announced he was a cop.
A prosecutors’ report says the recording also proves Raja fired some shots after he had to have realized that Jones had dropped his weapon in the grass near the rear of his SUV. Jones was hit by three bullets.
In 2016, a grand jury found Raja’s “use of force” was unjustified, and Chief Assistant State Attorney Brian Fernandes later wrote Raja “violated the public’s trust and confidence by unlawfully killing a young man who was in need of assistance.”
Jones’ death sparked public protests, amid a national uproar over police use of force directed at young black men, from Ferguson, Missouri, to Baltimore.
The charges against Raja — manslaughter by culpable negligence while armed, and attempted first-degree murder with a firearm — marked the first time since 1993 that a cop in Palm Beach County was charged in an on-duty killing.
Similarly, the charge against Peraza was a first in Broward involving a law enforcement officer in 35 years.
Palm Beach County Judge Samantha Schosberg Feuer postponed an April trial for Raja, and scheduled daylong “stand your ground” hearings on March 28 and March 29.
After that, her ruling will be appealed by either the defense or the prosecutors to the Fourth District Court of Appeal, the same court that cleared Peraza.
Assuming the appeals court keeps the charges against Raja in play, the trial would begin with jury selection July 16.
Attorney Barry Silver, speaking for relatives on Jones’ maternal side, said he expects the courts will ensure Raja’s case goes to trial.
“The Stand Your Ground law will not protect Nouman Raja,” Silver said. “The law does not protect people that are aggressive and violent.”
Jones’ aunt, Sheila Banks, said her nephew had a peaceful nature and did not instigate the shooting.
“If Nouman Raja needed help that night, Corey would have helped him,” she said. “That’s the kind of person Corey was.”