The first week of this month an armed Camden man held off police for two hours outside a dollar store in Pleasantville. Officers had to repeatedly confront him and his semi-automatic handgun with an illegally large magazine as he tried to escape before he finally dropped the weapon and was arrested unharmed.
Just a few days after that dramatic demonstration of the dangers police sometimes face, New Jersey’s Supreme Court issued a sharply divided ruling denying a Camden officer qualified immunity in a lawsuit over a similar shooting.
Bryheim Baskin, also of Camden, in 2012 sped away from one police vehicle and crashed into another. He fled on foot armed with a handgun, chased by police through a residential neighborhood. While out of sight of police, he threw the gun away. Detective Rafael Martinez said that when he caught up with the suspect, Baskin turned and pointed an object he thought was a gun. Martinez shot him in the abdomen. Two cell phones were found where he fell. Baskin subsequently pleaded guilty to drug and weapons charges.
Baskin sued, claiming that his hands were raised by the time Martinez shot him, which was corroborated by one witness.
The trial judge found Martinez had qualified immunity for his actions to protect the public and himself, since he couldn’t know that Baskin had thrown away his gun, and dismissed the lawsuit. In a split ruling, the appellate court reversed the judge and reinstated the lawsuit.
Four state Supreme Court justices said that in deciding whether to grant the summary judgment sought by Martinez, judges must view the evidence in the most favorable light for Baskin. They said a jury should decide whether Martinez should have known Baskin was no longer a threat and surrendering.
Three other Supreme Court justices said even if Baskin’s account were true, Martinez reasonably believed he confronted an armed and dangerous suspect — one who had already crashed his vehicle into police and resisted arrest with a gun in hand.
The top judges in New Jersey thus divided as evenly as possible on the contentious issue of how to handle law enforcement mistakes in the line of duty that may only be apparent in hindsight.
It’s too much to ask of Martinez and other officers in armed confrontations to instantly render correct judgments — when Supreme Court justices can’t agree after careful study and discussion.
This suggests that New Jersey’s qualified immunity law needs clarity, enough that law enforcement isn’t asked to take unreasonable risks in order to keep the public safe.