WEST PALM BEACH (CN) — A Florida police officer who was fired after fatally shooting a black musician whose car broke down on the side of a highway must face a criminal trial, after a state judge rejected his request for dismissal based on Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground self-defense law.
Palm Beach County Judge Samantha Schosberg Feuer on Friday denied former Palm Beach Gardens police Officer Nouman Raja’s pretrial motion to dismiss the criminal case against him in the fatal shooting of Corey Jones, a 31-year-old African-American musician and municipal housing inspector.
Jones’ vehicle broke down on Interstate 95 on the way back from an October 2015 gig with his band Future Presidentz. Jones was waiting alone for roadside assistance when Officer Raja pulled up in an unmarked van, wearing civilian clothes, by all accounts.
Raja had spotted Jones’ vehicle on the side of the highway while conducting a burglary stakeout nearby, in an affluent area of Palm Beach Gardens.
Raja’s attorneys claimed he is entitled to immunity under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. They said that Raja identified himself as a policeman as soon as he approached Jones, and that Jones pulled a pistol, whereupon Raja killed him in self-defense.
But Schosberg Feuer found that Raja’s account conflicted with the evidence, and that there were material “inconsistencies in [his] statements” to investigators.
Among other inconsistencies, the judge wrote, Raja incorrectly told investigators there was a laser sight on Jones’ gun, and that he’d called for backup during the incident.
Schosberg Feuer found that police call logs indicate Raja did not dial 911 until 30 seconds after he shot Jones. He allegedly yelled for Jones to “drop that fucking gun” during the call, though Jones’ gun was already on the ground, far away from Jones’ inert body.
Raja’s attorneys argued that Raja was on a dark road at 3 a.m. and could not see clearly whether Jones still posed a threat after he was shot. They characterized Raja’s inaccurate statements to investigators after the shooting as “minor misdescription” by a sleep-deprived, traumatized policeman.
Judge Schosberg Feuer rebutted those assertions, writing that Raja’s sworn statements were “unreliable and not credible.”
She added: “The manner in which defendant approached Jones — in the middle of the night, driving the wrong way up the [highway] ramp, in a white unmarked van, parking head-on diagonal to Jones’s vehicle just feet away, jumping out of his vehicle, in plain clothes, with his firearm drawn with no indication he was a police officer — would not afford an ordinary citizen Stand Your Ground immunity.”
Jones’ gun, which he had bought within four days of his death, was found in a grassy area, roughly 70 feet from his car with the safety on, police records state.
He had not fired a shot at Raja, the records say.
A key piece of evidence is the recorded call Jones placed to a roadside assistance service, which happened to capture the interaction between him and Raja.
Nowhere on that recording does Raja clearly identify himself as an officer, the judge wrote.
The defense team claimed Raja identified himself during a muffled section of the recording, but Judge Schosberg Feuer wrote that Jones sounded confused in the ensuing moments, and that if Raja did indeed identify himself, Jones likely did not hear it.
Raja is charged with manslaughter by culpable negligence while armed, and attempted first-degree murder. He was fired a few weeks after the shooting.
A pretrial conference has been set for early July.
A wrongful death lawsuit against Raja and the city by Jones’ estate has been stayed pending resolution of the criminal case.
Florida’s Stand Your Ground law allows use of deadly force if a person reasonably believes it to be “necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm.” The law gained national attention after Neighborhood Watchman George Zimmerman shot to death an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, and was acquitted for it in Sanford, Florida, in 2012.
Florida courts are still working out how the law applies to law enforcement officers.
The Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled in Peraza v. State of Florida in 2017 that law enforcement officers can receive immunity under the general provisions of the Stand Your Ground law.
Judge Schosberg Feuer found that ruling appears to conflict with the Second District Court of Appeal’s decision in Caamano v. State, which held that a Florida statute specifically governing police conduct supplants the Stand Your Ground law when it comes to deadly force by police in pursuit of an arrest.
The Florida Supreme Court is reviewing Peraza and the applicability of Stand Your Ground law to police shootings of civilians.