Last week, we shared the efforts of several Cleveland activists to have the police officers who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice charged with a crime. We reported that a local judge had found probable cause to charge the officers with murder and negligent homicide. But the court inexplicably declined to actually charge them or issue arrest warrants. The activists have now filed a pro se appeal that would require those officers to be arrested and charged.
The group is composed of local ministers, civil rights leaders and city residents who live near the park where Tamir Rice was shot dead last November. The Cleveland police department’s pattern of excessive force, particularly against the city’s African American residents, is well-documented by two consent decrees with the U.S. Department of Justice over the last 10 years. Based in part on this history, and a video recording of the shooting, many Cleveland residents are frustrated and outraged by the Cuyahoga county prosecutor’s failure to file charges in the child’s death more than six months later.
In most states, the decision to charge a person with a crime is left to the discretion of the local prosecutor. Grand juries are sometimes empaneled to determine the charges, if any, to be filed. But while citizen’s arrests are part of English common law, Ohio and some other states allow citizens to bypass the prosecutor and seek charges through the courts. Part of the state’s citizen participation law, Ohio R.C. 2935.10(A) states:
Upon the filing of an affidavit or complaint as provided by section 2935.09 of the Revised Code, if it charges the commission of a felony, such judge, clerk, or magistrate, unless he has reason to believe that it was not filed in good faith, or the claim is not meritorious, shall forthwith issue a warrant for the arrest of the person charged in the affidavit, and directed to a peace officer…
Early this month, eight local activists used this statute to get a judicial finding that charges against the police officers were warranted. With the help of a lawyer, the Cleveland 8 filed affidavits in municipal court asking a judge to arrest the police officers responsible for killing Tamir Rice. While a judge found their claim meritorious and agreed that sufficient evidence for the charges existed, the court said its findings were advisory in nature and that it lacked the power to issue warrants for the officers’ arrests. In short, any charges would still require action by the local prosecutor.
The activists disagree that the court lacks arrest powers. Courts issue bench warrants all the time. The Cleveland 8 has just filed a pro se appeal to force the issuance of arrest warrants based on their affidavits, as the statute appears to require. There is no word yet on when the appellate court will decide the matter, but civil appeals can take several months. The prosecutor had already announced plans to present the case to a grand jury, but we’ve seen that dog and pony show before in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere.
This judge’s blatant disregard for Ohio law only adds fuel to the Black Lives Matter movement. This case has raised hurtful and unnecessary questions as to whether the laws of Ohio and other states apply to the deaths of African Americans. Today would have been Tamir’s 13th birthday, and the family celebrated him last weekend by continuing to demand justice for his killing. There’s little reason to expect justice in this case, but we’ll join the family and do it anyway.
Share your thoughts in the comments. Is this how justice should work in 2015?