As jury deliberations begin today in the case against Baltimore policeman William Porter, jurors must deal with a rare question in criminal law: When is an officer’s failure to act a crime? The Baltimore Sun says prosecutors face a difficult job proving that Porter’s alleged failure to look after Freddie Gray in police custody was a criminal violation, as the standards for winning such a case are higher than in civil court, where similar cases have landed. The lack of precedent means fewer previous rulings to serve as a guide. While legal experts said it’s clear that police officers have a legal obligation to their prisoners, exactly what breaches of that responsibility amount to a crime remains a difficult question to answer.
David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh professor who studies policing, said U.S. criminal laws are usually of the “thou shalt not” variety, rather than “thou shalt.” “We’re pretty stingy in this country and this culture with obligating people to do stuff,”he said. Porter is the first of six officers to go on trial in Gray’s arrest in April and death a week later. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of involuntary manslaughter, second degree assault, reckless endangerment, and misconduct in office for failing to seat-belt Gray into the back of a police transport van, where Gray suffered a severe spinal cord injury, and failing to provide medical care when he asked. Porter’s lawyers said that they cannot find any other case in the country in which a police officer was criminally charged for not seat-belting a prisoner. Legal experts also said it’s difficult to find criminal cases against police officers accused of inaction.