Differing Burdens Made a Difference in Freddie Gray Acquittals

A judge has acquitted a Maryland law enforcement officer involved in the death of Freddie Gray. No matter how you feel about the ultimate decision, the case continues to provide teaching points about how our criminal justice system works.

One Interesting aspect of the recent acquittals is how it points out the differing standards between civil and criminal liability. Even though no officers were found guilty of any crime, we hear “beyond a reasonable doubt” a lot in TV and movies. But every now and then, we see it in action.

Facts of the Gray Case

Here, the state alleged that officers failed to seat belt or fasten Gray in the back of a police van after arresting him. The van made multiple stops with Gray in the back. In severe distress, Gray was rushed to the hospital, and later died. Witness accounts contradict each other, but some witnesses testified that Gray was incapacitated and in pain when he was put in the back of the truck. Many theorized that Gray was purposely cuffed, and the van purposely driven erratically such to cause injury.

In civil law, when the standard is negligence, the Court normally will address foreseeability. In Gray’s case, the question would be whether the death was foreseeable given a failure to secure him in the van. A court may have looked at whether a failure to fasten, or erratic driving, was a contributing cause to the death.

If it was more likely than not that the behavior contributed to or caused the death, there would be civil liability. In fact, Baltimore City did enter into a civil settlement with the Gray family in late 2015.

Criminal Liability is Different Than Civil Liability

So, if the city entered into such a settlement, how is it that the officers involved in the incident are being found not guilty? The answer is in the differing criminal standard of beyond a reasonable doubt versus the civil standard of preponderance of the evidence.

First, for criminal negligence (manslaughter), a standard of “grossly negligent” behavior must be met. That is much higher than ordinary negligence. To prove misconduct while in office, the state needed to show that the officer acted “corruptly.” But a simple “mistake” or “error in judgment,” as the Court deemed the officer’s actions to be, was insufficient to meet these heightened criminal standards.

The Court also noted that at times, ensuring that passengers are secured or belted in, can be dangerous for officers, as it puts them in close quarters in the back of a vehicle with potentially dangerous individuals. Whether this applied to Gray or not did not make a difference—what mattered is that because the failure was not unreasonable, it could not meet the heightened standard to prove criminal liability.

These facts, as well as the differing witness accounts, all meant that the charges could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. The case is a lesson not to assume that everything that may be wrong, is criminally wrong, and that the state must meet its heightened burden in criminal trials.

If you are charged with a crime make sure the state meets its burden to prove the charges against you. If you are arrested, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today for a free consultation to discuss your rights.