Immunity for Kentucky Cop Thrown Out

     (CN) – A police officer who was in no physical danger when he shot and killed a driver fleeing arrest is not entitled to immunity, the Sixth Circuit ruled.
     Officer David Byrd fatally shot 21-year-old Michael Godawa on June 23, 2012, outside the Finish Line Bar and Restaurant in Elsmere, Ky.
     Byrd claims he was approached by a Finish Line employee at approximately 1 a.m., who was concerned about an underage individual walking around the parking lot drinking.
     The officer then approached Godawa and inquired about the bottle of beer visible in his car’s cupholder. Godawa allegedly said the beer belonged to his girlfriend who was inside the bar.
     Byrd then asked Godawa to consent a field sobriety test, and he eventually did. However, when the officer went to his bicycle to ask for backup to help with the test, Godawa started his car and left the parking lot at five to 10 miles per hour, according to court records.
      Finish Line surveillance footage reportedly shows that Byrd ran alongside the car shouting at Godawa to stop, and tried to place his body in front of the car. He appears to make contact with the car just off camera, which can be inferred in the video from his slightly unsteady gait, the ruling states.
     The officer appears to regain his balance before firing his weapon through the rear passenger-side window. The bullet went through Godawa’s right shoulder and pierced a lung, killing him.
     An Eastern Kentucky district court granted Byrd immunity in a wrongful death suit brought by Godawa’s parents, but the Cincinnati-based appeals court reversed the decision on Wednesday.
     “[Video evidence] can reasonably be interpreted as indicating that defendant was not directly in front of the vehicle, but rather was located ahead of the vehicle to the right of the passenger side during the relevant timeframe, and that the car never ‘targeted’ defendant,” Judge Eric Clay wrote for a three-member panel.
     It is not clear that Godawa “tried to hit” Byrd, as the officer claims, but rather appears that Byrd was running towards the car with his gun drawn, the Sixth Circuit ruled.
     A reasonable jury could find that Godawa never attempted to hit Byrd or posed a threat to the officer’s life before he was shot, Clay wrote.
     “Rather, defendant actively ‘put himself in a dangerous position in order to effectuate an arrest’ by running alongside the car and using his body to try to block the exit,” the ruling states. “Defendant was not in front of the car, but instead was positioned near the rear passenger side, at the time that he fired his weapon. From that position, defendant would have had no reason to fear being struck by the car as it continued to advance.”
     Godawa was also not under suspicion of any violent crime, nor did the officer suspect him of having a criminal history, the judge wrote.
     The appeals court held that legal precedent establishes that an officer may use deadly force only if a fleeing driver imperils the lives of officers and/or the public.
     “We conclude that defendant’s use of force in this case was objectively unreasonable; although he was fleeing from police, Godawa was suspected of only minor offenses and posed no ‘immediate threat’ to defendant or any member of the public,” Clay wrote.

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