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Missouri Attorney General Wants Tougher Deadly Force Law

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A Missouri grand jury declined Nov. 24 to indict former Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson in the Aug. 9 shooting death of Michael Brown.St. Louis County Prosecutor's Office via Reuters

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Missouri's attorney general called Tuesday night for a change in state law to make it tougher for law enforcement officers to justify the use of deadly force, a week and a half after a grand jury declined to indict former Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown.

NBC News reported last week that one of the factors that would have complicated any prosecution of Wilson was a Missouri statute that gives peace officers greater leeway in using deadly force than is allowed in many other states. In a statement to MSNBC's "The Last Word," Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster said Wednesday night that state lawmakers should bring the statute into line with an important Supreme Court ruling.

"Among the problems that Ferguson has brought to light is the need to update Missouri's use of deadly force statute," Koster said. "This statute is inconsistent with the United States Supreme Court's holding in Tennessee v. Garner. Consequently, it is important this statute is amended by the Missouri legislature to incorporate the Garner decision and to avoid confusion within the criminal justice system."

The 1985 Garner decision is one of two Supreme Court rulings — the other is from 1989 — addressing when a law enforcement officer can justifiably use deadly force.

The 1985 decision says it's justifiable only if the officer has probable cause to believe a fleeing suspect is a violent felon and poses a significant threat to the officer or the public — requiring the existence of a threat before an officer can use deadly force. The 1989 decision — Graham v. Connor — found that an officer's justification for use of deadly force must be assessed in the context of a "reasonable" officer's state of mind under the specific circumstances — one of which can, but doesn't necessarily have to be, a threat to the officer or the public.

In an interview last week with NBC News, Roger Goldman, Callis Family Professor of Law emeritus at St. Louis University Law School, said that under the current statute, "if I'm representing the police officer, I'm arguing that Missouri law allows an officer to use deadly force to stop a fleeing felon even if he is not a danger to the public or fellow officers."

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