Does Supremacy Clause Shield Many Local Police Shooting Charges?


Charles Kleinert, the Austin, Tx., police detective who shot and killed Larry Jackson, Jr., was scheduled to be tried this week for manslaughter. A judge dismissed the case, saying the white officer was acting as a member of a federal task force in 2013 when he shot Jackson, an unarmed black man, the Washington Post reports. As a federal agent at the time, the judge ruled, Kleinert is shielded from state prosecution. The ruling stunned Jackson's family, whose attorney called it a “great civil rights injustice,” and dismayed the local prosecutor, who has vowed to appeal. The case is shining a spotlight on a legal tactic rarely used in criminal cases, one that raises the question of when, if ever, a federal law enforcement officer can be charged with a crime for killing someone in the line of duty.

So far this year, federal officers have been involved in 33 fatal shootings nationwide, says a Post database tracking shootings by law enforcement officers, more than any state or local department. More than two-thirds involved the U.S. Marshals Service, the federal agency responsible for corralling fugitives. The vast majority also involved local police officers acting in concert with federal officials. If the ruling in the Austin case stands, the blanket of federal immunity could extend to hundreds, if not thousands, of state and local police officers who participate in federal task forces set up to handle matters as varied as immigration offenses and sex crimes. The ruling in the Austin case relies on the Supremacy Clause, a provision in Article VI of the U.S. Constitution that establishes that federal law trumps state laws where they are in conflict.

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