Jury treated troopers’ confrontations with Kemp as two separate incidents

The recent trial resulting from the shooting of Jason Kemp in Grand Junction by a Colorado State Patrol trooper has generated a wide range of emotions and, of course, opinions. Such situations, happening in even in their most straightforward fashion, are always of deep concern to the public, and they should be.

As someone who’s participated in a number of law enforcement shooting investigations, I can say that I’ve never seen an instance where it was treated lightly or where everyone involved did not wish a different result.

At best, such incidents can be used to learn something about not just the occurrence itself, which may have happened in a split second, but factors separate from the incident that may have led to the outcome. Such, I think, is the case here.

The actions of the troopers at the Kemp household are not just about one item, the constitutional legitimacy of officers attempting to enter the home, but also the perception and reasonableness of the officer who fired the shot. In this case, from what I understand, the altercation at the door involving one trooper set into motion a chain of circumstances with a second trooper arriving on the scene, perceiving a struggle involving another officer and acting on his perception of that event.

This seems a separate situation from the constitutional question of the original trooper’s contact with Kemp and his alleged attempts to gain entry to the home. This appears to be the analysis taken by the jury in the trial of Trooper Ivan “Gene” Lawyer, who fired the fatal shot. The jury did not feel the Fourth Amendment questions involving the original trooper at the door were directly connected to the actions of Trooper Lawyer.

This analysis neither accepts nor rejects the constitutional sufficiency of the trooper trying to enter the Kemp household to carry out an investigation of a possible drunk driving incident. It essentially treats the shooting as an incident with independent standards.

The verdict, then, in the Lawyer trial does not seem to sanction a warrantless attempt to use force to enter a private dwelling to gather evidence in a misdemeanor traffic investigation.

There are some circumstances where the law might allow pursuing a traffic offender into his home, such as if an officer is in fresh pursuit of a suspect with no appreciable loss of time or contact of the suspect by the officer from the scene of the offense to the home.

This does not appear to be a case where the requirement for a warrant is waived by the need to prevent a loss of life or ensure the welfare of someone at risk. Neither does the sort of crime being investigated seem to justify an entry to preserve evidence. The law seems clear that a suspect in his home with evidence of his intoxication (his blood-alcohol level) disappearing is not sufficient to justify a warrantless entry.

But now we may have reached a more systemic problem of sufficient training in the complex but critical topic of the constitutional guidelines involving search and seizure. More comprehensive training on this incredibly important area of state power might have led to a different result.

The root of this variety of problem is often found in the agency involved and how it addresses its mission.

Many people are not aware that the Colorado State Patrol is not a state police force. Instead, CSP troopers are state peace officers specifically tasked with enforcing and investigating traffic and auto-theft related issues. Recently, they have branched into immigration and drug interdiction on the highways, which to some extent is logical based on their main statutory mission.

With this in mind, we can understand training that mainly involves roadways and automobiles, which, due to their location and mobility, have different applications of search-and-seizure procedures than those applied to a home or business.

Trooper Lawyer commented that he did not feel comfortable with his level of training in this area and this is probably why. In a crisis, an officer must rely on his experience and the training provided by his agency to form his understanding of of the limits and techniques to be used in exercising his authority. The facts here do not seem to be totally unexpected, even within the narrow confines of the patrol’s mission.

One lesson that might be learned from all this is that increased training that involves incidents that can be reasonably anticipated, might prevent a series of events that end in tragedy.

Rick Wagner writes more on politics at his blog, The War on Wrong.


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