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Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson Not Out of the Woods

Officer Wilson could still face federal charges, but the Justice Department would have to show he used excessive force with the knowledge that it was wrong.
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Even though a Missouri grand jury declined Monday to indict Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, Wilson isn't off the hook yet.

A St. Louis County grand jury returned no indictments against Monday night against Wilson, 28, who could have faced charges ranging from second-degree involuntary manslaughter to first-degree murder in the fatal Aug. 9 shooting of Brown.

For one thing, the U.S. Justice Department has opened a federal civil rights investigation, which could lead to a separate prosecution. Numerous legal experts, however, have been quoted as saying a federal case is unlikely, because the government would have to show not just that Wilson improperly shot Brown, but also that he did it with the specific intention of violating the young man's civil rights.

Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged Monday night that "federal civil rights law imposes a high legal bar in these types of cases," but he said the investigation "remains ongoing."

"The federal inquiry has been independent of the local one from the start, and remains so now," Holder said in a statement. "Even at this mature stage of the investigation, we have avoided prejudging any of the evidence."

More likely are civil proceedings by Brown's family and disciplinary action by local and state police officials.

Brown's family hasn't yet said whether it will sue Wilson — not even in a statement after the grand jury's decision was announced Monday night. But Benjamin Crump, their attorney, told MSNBC earlier Monday that if Wilson faces no state or federal charges, "the only remedy they will have left is a legal civil matter."

Crump could have an easier time winning a civil judgment than St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch would have had winning a criminal prosecution.

McCulloch and his team would have had to persuade all 12 members of a criminal jury that Wilson committed a crime beyond any "reasonable doubt."

But depending on what kind of civil suit was brought and where — a wrongful-death action in state court, for example, or a civil rights action in state or federal court — the burden of proof generally speaking would be only a "preponderance of the evidence."

That is, the family's lawyers would have to persuade a judge or a jury only that Wilson was more likely liable than not — essentially tipping the scales 50.1 percent in their favor to 49.9 percent in Wilson's.

Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson has acknowledged that if Wilson isn't under indictment, he has a legal right to return to work. But he has said Wilson would first have to survive an internal investigation.

Wilson, who remains a sworn officer on paid leave, has well-established legal protections if the police department seeks to fire him, which could be a drawn-out process if Wilson decided to fight the action. In a statement issued thrugh his attorney, Wilson gave no indication whether he would seek to resume active duty in Ferguson.

But there is another way, little known to the public, that Wilson could be kicked off the force, said a nationally recognized expert on police regulation and oversight, Roger Goldman, the Callis Family Professor of Law emeritus at St. Louis University Law School.

The state could revoke his license to be a police officer.

Missouri's Department of Public Safety issued Wilson a peace officer's certificate when he completed the state's mandatory training. The state can also revoke it, Goldman told NBC News.

And unlike many of the 43 other states that have such a "decertification" provision, Missouri doesn't require that a police officer have been convicted of a crime.

The state would have to determine only that a crime was committed — "whether or not a criminal charge has been filed," according to Missouri law — or that the officer "has committed any act while on active duty or under color of law that involves moral turpitude or a reckless disregard for the safety of the public or any person."

If the Public Safety Department determines that an officer "presents a clear and present danger to the public health or safety," it can suspend the officer immediately.

Decertification could be an iffy proposition, Goldman said. He said police unions would likely strong oppose disciplining Wilson in the absence of even an indictment — much less a conviction — and noted that his own research shows that such license actions are rare.