The Lawyer verdict

The Fourth Amendment’s right of people “to be secure in their persons and houses ... against unreasonable search and seizures” was at the heart of the prosecution’s case against Colorado State Patrol Trooper Ivan “Gene” Lawyer for the 2010 shooting death of Jason Kemp in his Redlands home.

But that critical protection for citizens of the United States was a “very ancillary” issue to jurors who found Lawyer innocent last week on four counts, and were hung up on two other counts, Lawyer’s attorney told The Daily Sentinel’s Paul Shockley.

We didn’t review all of the evidence and documents jurors did prior to reaching their verdict, and we understand the difficult decision they were asked to make. We respect that decision. However, we hope attorney Eric Fenster was wrong about the jury’s consideration of the Fourth Amendment.

Such a fundamental right of Americans should never be swept aside as “ancillary.” That’s especially true when an unarmed man is fatally shot in his own home by police officers who had no warrant and — at best — highly debatable probable cause for trying to force their way into his home.

The Fourth Amendment should be front and center when the Colorado State Patrol gets around to dissecting this tragedy. There were several pieces of evidence during the Lawyer trial that suggests the CSP’s consideration of Fourth Amendment rights for DUI suspects is woefully inadequate.

For one thing, there was the testimony of CSP Sgt. Chad Dunlap, who was on the scene when Kemp was killed, but wasn’t at the front door with Lawyer. Dunlap said he had limited experience in obtaining search warrants. This from a person in a leadership position at the State Patrol.

Dunlap also said training for CSP troopers stresses the need to obtain blood-alcohol evidence in a timely manner in a possible DUI case. Does that mean attempting to push your way into a suspect’s house without a warrant? As District Attorney Pete Hautzinger made clear, a suspected DUI infraction is not probable cause for such action.

Lawyer testified that he believed he had probable cause after he saw Kemp and fellow officer, Cpl., Kirk Firko, scuffling just outside Kemp’s front door, an incident Lawyer didn’t mention in earlier testimony about the shooting.

But why did Lawyer, Firko and others even push the issue at Kemp’s front door? They had no warrant. They could just have easily backed off to get a warrant, or called Mesa County Sheriff’s Department officers who have considerably more experience dealing with suspects locked inside a house.

Lawyer also said he may have reacted differently with Kemp because he’d been “scolded” by a supervisor a few weeks earlier for not using enough force to subdue another DUI suspect who kicked out the windows of Lawyer’s patrol car.

So: limited experience with search warrants; an institutional urgency to obtain evidence quickly; and pressure from a supervisor to be tougher on DUI suspects.

Sounds like the Colorado State Patrol was setting Lawyer and other officers up for serious problems and for abusing suspects’ Fourth Amendment rights.


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