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Prosecutor Determines that Officer Acted in Lawful Self-Defense, Defense of Others and Apprehension of a Fleeing Felon

Facts

On video surveillance, at approximately at 3:45 p.m. on January 27, 2016, Janet Wilson entered Solstice Sunglasses, a store inside Fairlane Mall in Dearborn. A female employee at the store approached Wilson and asked if she was looking for any particular sunglasses. Ms. Wilson, who had picked up a pair of sunglasses, threw them down toward the store employee and began to yell at her. The employee called Fairlane Mall security. Ms. Wilson made aggressive and sexual remarks towards the employee, who responded by telling Ms. Wilson "Have a good day" and pointed towards the exit. Ms. Wilson eventually left the store after security was called. The employee pointed Ms. Wilson out to a Fairlane Mall security guard because Ms. Wilson was involved in a heated verbal confrontation with another woman right outside of the Solstice Sunglasses store.

A Fairlane Mall security officer approached Ms. Wilson and asked her to leave the mall premises immediately. Ms. Wilson began to argue and behave in a disorderly manner toward the security officer. She continued to slowly make her way to the parking lot from the mall outside of JC Penny. In the parking lot, Ms. Wilson continued screaming at Fairlane Mall and JC Penney security officers, as well as other pedestrians. Eventually she stopped on the way to her car and spoke for a few minutes with a man in a pickup truck.

Ms. Wilson reached her car, opened her car door and yelled at a mall security vehicle that drove by her car. Ms. Wilson entered her car, and then got out of her car and ran to chase another security car driving past. She returned to her car and made gestures with her hands as she was yelling at Fairlane Mall security when they drove past to get her license plate to report to the Dearborn Police Department.

While this was happening, Dearborn police received a call from the Fairlane Mall security office about a woman causing a disturbance outside of JC Penny. Mall security was instructed to stay away from Ms. Wilson for their own safety. Ms. Wilson pulled out of her parking space and, instead of leaving the mall parking lot, drove in the direction of the security officers’ vehicles. She drove at one vehicle, causing the driver to move his vehicle to avoid being hit in the driver’s door. Ms. Wilson then drove toward another vehicle causing that driver to use evasive maneuvers.

When two Dearborn Police officers arrived on the scene in their fully marked SUV, they were advised by security that Ms. Wilson was attempting to hit them with her vehicle. The Dearborn Police radio dispatch indicated a disorderly female was attempting to run down the security officers. Ms. Wilson then exited the parking lot driving onto Fairlane Town Center Drive. A marked DPD SUV driven by officer 1 (with officer 2 in the passenger seat) pulled behind her car and tried to conduct a traffic stop by activating emergency lights and the siren. Ms. Wilson did not pull over, but instead drove around a fully marked squad car sedan driven by officer 3 with lights activated, ran a stop sign and pulled onto Hubbard Drive. Ms. Wilson’s vehicle eventually stopped due to traffic on Hubbard.

The Dearborn Police Department marked sedan vehicle with officer 3 was parked behind Ms. Wilson. The DPD SUV was parked to the right of Ms. Wilson. Officers 1 and 2 exited the SUV, approached her car and told her to turn the car off. Officer 3 was repeatedly pounding on the driver’s side window, telling her to unlock the door and turn car off. When traffic cleared in front of her car, Ms. Wilson drove forward toward officer 2, who was positioned near the front passenger side of her car. His firearm was drawn and pointed at Ms. Wilson while he ordered her to stop driving and shut off the car. Officer 2 began to step away from Ms. Wilson’s vehicle and shot three times through the front windshield on the passenger side and one time through the passenger side car window. Ms. Wilson continued to drive forward until she slowly lost control. The car began to drift until it was stopped by the patrol vehicles. Ms. Wilson’s foot was still on the gas pedal, causing the engine to rev and the tires to smoke.

The officers approached the driver’s door of Ms. Wilson’s vehicle, broke the glass, put the car in park, turned off the engine and removed her from the vehicle. Ms. Wilson was incapacitated from the gunshot wounds. She was placed on the ground and the officers provided medical aid. Ms. Wilson was taken to a local hospital by ambulance where she was pronounced dead. The autopsy determined she died from multiple gunshot wounds, three to the chest and one that entered and exited through her arm.

Analysis of Michigan Law of Self Defense

It is well established that a police officer attempting to make a lawful arrest may use that force which is reasonable under the circumstances in his own self-defense. Further, a police officer, by the necessity of his duties, is not required to retreat before a display of force by his adversary People v. Doss, 406 Mich 90 (1979). In People v. Heflin, 434 Mich 482 at 502 (1990), the Michigan Supreme Court held that "the killing of another person in self-defense is justifiable homicide if the defendant honestly and reasonably believes that his life is in imminent danger or that there is a threat of serious bodily harm." Further, officers can be mistaken as to the degree of danger they are actually in, as long as their belief was reasonable under the circumstances.

In this case, multiple witnesses have stated that the vehicle was driven at Dearborn Police Department Officer 2 before he fired, and some believe he was struck by the vehicle before the shots were fired. Witness accounts place Officer 2 within inches of the front bumper when the vehicle began to move. Although he was not actually hit, the witnesses’ accounts substantiate how close he was to the car when Ms. Wilson began to drive. The video shows Officer 2 backing away from her car as he continues to shoot. It does not make sense that he would move backward and discharge his weapon unless he felt the need to immediately move to a place of safety while Ms. Wilson’s car was moving. This is especially true given how close his fellow officers were to the car and how many civilians were in the area. Three of the bullets went through the front windshield on passenger side and one shattered the front passenger side window.

Ms. Wilson exhibited erratic and aggressive behavior at the Fairlane Mall that caused multiple people and security personnel to be placed in fear. There is substantial evidence to show that Ms. Wilson was the initial aggressor and that her over 3,000 pound vehicle was used as a deadly weapon. The Dearborn Police Department officers were informed by dispatch and Fairlane Mall security that Ms. Wilson had tried to run them down with her vehicle. This information is important when considering Officer 2’s state of mind and reasonable belief that his life was in imminent danger or there was a threat of serious bodily harm.

In addition, her volatile and aggressive conduct was not an isolated incident. There are several incidents involving Ms. Wilson that were previously reported to the police, however, they did not result in criminal charges. For example:

  • Family members were previously subjected to her physical attacks including an incident of felonious assault with a knife on a family member.
  • In October of 2015, after a confrontation with family members, she attempted to run down a U.S. Postal employee.
  • Police officers were subjected to assaults and combative incidents when called by the family, including biting, kicking, hitting, and deep scratch wounds.

Apprehension of a Fleeing Felon

Currently, Michigan’s common law allows police officers to utilize deadly force when necessary to prevent the escape of a fleeing felon. Michigan’s common law allows an officer to legally shoot and kill an unarmed individual who flees after committing a nonassaultive felony.

Under People v. Couch, 436 Mich 414, 461 NW2d 683 (1990), the Michigan Supreme Court stated that, until changed by the state’s legislature, it has been and continues to be that, under Michigan’s common law, an officer may utilize deadly force, when necessary, to prevent the escape of a fleeing felon. The court further stated that Michigan’s common law does not distinguish between dangerous and non-dangerous felonies. The Court declined to impose such a restriction, saying that the decision of whether police officers (or citizens) should be subject to criminal liability for the killing of a non-dangerous fleeing felon is a question for the legislature. In the subsequent case of People v. Fiedler, 194 Mich App 682 (1992), the Fleeing Felon doctrine was narrowed slightly. Under Fiedler, it is required that an officer have both reasonable cause to believe that a felony has been committed and reasonable cause to believe that the person, against whom deadly force is used, committed the felony.

In this case, the Dearborn police had probable cause to believe Ms. Wilson had committed several felonies including Felonious Assault, Resisting and Obstructing and Fleeing and Eluding in the Third Degree. The police tried to stop her car, but she attempted to flee by driving away when traffic cleared in front of her. A number of people were potentially in danger from Ms. Wilson’s actions. They did not have time to move their cars to block her in and the use of a taser or pepper spray was not possible with her being locked in her car. The use of deadly force (discharge of his duty weapon) was the only available means to immediately prevent her from escaping. In other words, the only means available to stop her from being a danger to others was to shoot.

Conclusion

Police, security officers and civilian eyewitness accounts when taken as a whole support the justification of the shooting under the law of self defense, and the apprehension of a fleeing felon in Michigan. Particularly important is the lack of proof to overcome self-defense. The assertion that the officer was honestly and reasonably in fear of death or great bodily harm, is directly supported by the law and evidence in the case.

There is insufficient evidence to criminally charge Dearborn police Officer 2 because the facts of this case and the applicable laws do not support charges that can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

Statement of Prosecutor Worthy in the Matthews and Wilson Cases

Prosecutor Worthy said, "Our goal is to make sure that we make just decisions according to the applicable law. These decisions were particularly difficult and heart wrenching for all parties involved, including me. We take our responsibility very seriously and both cases had many issues to investigate. This added significant time to our ability to come to just decisions. We interviewed numerous witnesses, reviewed reports, analyzed all the physical evidence, police training materials, medical records, and consulted with multiple experts. Thoroughness takes time.

"After careful analysis we have concluded that we cannot prove the Matthews case beyond a reasonable doubt because of the laws of self-defense. We also cannot prove the Wilson case beyond a reasonable doubt because of the law of self defense, the law of defense of others and the law regarding apprehension of a fleeing felon."

Fatal Police Shooting of Janet Wilson - Investigation Timeline

January 27, 2016 - Date of Fatal Shooting of Janet Wilson MSP contacted to conduct investigation

January 29, 2016 - MSP reports, videos and 911 tapes received

February 1, 2016 - Reviewed search warrant for vehicle and requested additional Dearborn Police records and reports

February 3, 2016 - Additional interviews of witnesses requested

February 8, 2016 - ME Report received

February 9 - 24, 2016 - OIC Interviewed additional civilian witnesses from social media

March 9 - April 21, 2016 - Interviews conducted

March 14-23, 2016 - Search warrants for records reviewed

April 26, 2016 - OIC received scene photos

April 2016 - Received some records requested through search warrants, which resulted in a need for additional search warrants

May 2, 2016 - Request for additional civilians and officers to be interviewed

May 4, 2016 - Received MSP lab report regarding digital evidence

May 9, 2016 - Received MSP firearms lab report

June 9, 2016 - Interview two additional Dearborn Police personnel

June 16, 2016 - Received MSP Warrant Request - returned within days for additional details

July 12, 2016 - Informed that Officer 2 will not be making a statement to Prosecutor’s Office

July 2016 - Continued to receive additional records from search warrants which again led to additional search warrants

July 18, 2016 - Received amended warrant request from MSP

August 2016 - Continued to receive records from search warrants

August 31, 2016 - Received Crash Data report indicating no crash event recorded for January 27, 2016

October 13, 2016 - Received updated warrant request from MSP

November 7, 2016 - Reviewed lab reports, photos and diagrams with MSP Lab personnel

November 16, 2016 - Meeting held with Prosecutor Worthy and supervisors, additional records requested regarding police training materials.

November 18, 2016 - Training records requested through OIC and Prosecutor’s investigators

November 22 - Dec. 6, 2016 - Received training records from MCOLES, Dearborn Police, and Police Academy

Dec. 6 - Dec. 15, 2016 - Prosecutor Worthy reviews documents and meets to determine what action is appropriate.

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