VIEWPOINTS: Ruling in Kleinert case weakens police accountability

Last week’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to not take up a case involving a former Austin police officer who fatally shot an African-American man was a huge victory for the officer, ending a saga that began in 2013.

For Travis County prosecutors who took the case to the high court in hope of holding Charles Kleinert criminally responsible in the death of Larry Jackson Jr., the ruling was a big defeat.

The decision raises new concerns and challenges for Travis County and other local authorities in their ability to hold officers — who work for and are paid by cities and counties, but serve on federal task forces — legally responsible for crimes.

“This is a new path. I don’t think anyone thought about this immunity until now,” Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore told us.

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Unfortunately, Kleinert’s case was not determined on whether he was guilty or innocent of manslaughter charges. Instead, it turned on the successful legal argument that Kleinert was entitled to special protective immunity typically reserved for federal officers on the federal payroll, such as officers who work for the FBI and U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

Kleinert was working for the Austin Police Department. Nonetheless, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel in 2015 ruled that because he also was working on a federal robbery task force the day he shot Jackson, Kleinert was entitled to protective immunity that shields federal officers from state charges. Yeakel, who relied on legal precedent from 1890 in his ruling, dismissed charges against Kleinert.

With that, Yeakel seemed to expand the special immunity. Moore understood the stakes: If that stood, Kleinert would be beyond the reach of the Travis County – and state legal system — and it would be virtually impossible for her office to charge local law enforcement officers in criminal matters. The fallout also would be felt by many in the public who would see the ruling as a sign that officers are above the law.

It’s no wonder Moore appealed to the nation’s highest court. In deciding not to hear the case, Yeakel’s decision, upheld by the 5th U.S. Circuit of Appeals last year, now governs such situations. The case, Moore concedes, changes the legal landscape.

“I think it’s very important that this community understand this case and its rulings,” she said. “If it ever happens again involving an officer who is a task force participant, the likely authority to address the conduct will be federal. That doesn’t mean state prosecutors and authorities don’t want to – it’s why we took it as far as we did. We needed to know the law.”

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The ruling applies to dozens of officers employed by the APD and Travis County sheriff’s office, and to city and county law enforcement nationwide who work on federal task forces. Officers who aren’t participating on federal task forces still can be charged with crimes in state court.

Interim Police Chief Brian Manley also said it does not – and won’t – impact his department’s ability to hold officers accountable if they violate policies, as Kleinert apparently did in the July 26, 2013 encounter with Jackson.

Travis County prosecutors asserted Kleinert behaved recklessly when he chased down and ultimately shot Jackson. In a rare occurrence, a Travis County grand jury indicted Kleinert on a manslaughter charge in May 2014. Jackson was not involved in the bank robbery Kleinert was investigating, but had shown up later and tried to enter the bank.

Jackson fled when Kleinert tried to question him. After commandeering a civilian’s car, Kleinert caught up to Jackson and the two became involved in a struggle in which Kleinert said his gun accidentally fired, fatally hitting Jackson in the neck.

Despite such disturbing and unprofessional conduct, Kleinert was not punished by APD because he retired soon after the incident.

Going forward, Moore says there is a need for more clarity. She intends to meet with local law enforcement and federal officials – including the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office — about the rules of engagement when local officers who also serve on federal task forces are involved in criminal incidents, including officer-involved shootings.

That is a good starting point. Local police and sheriff’s departments nationwide work with federal task forces on everything from terrorism and drug gangs to bank robberies. Manley cites the local-federal partnership as important in safeguarding the public during big public events and investigating Austin drug and gang crimes that cross state lines.

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Austin also receives about $700,000 a year in assets and money seized in investigations and forfeitures. Untangling the partnership might not hurt much financially, but the city would lose much in the way of intelligence and evidence-gathering and the ability to pursue certain crimes across state lines.

Moore is right in seeking more clarity.

She said it seems logical that federal authorities now should respond to potential criminal incidents involving local officers who work on federal task forces, including citizen-involved shootings. Decisions about criminal charges also would be governed by the feds.

Moore said there are other questions, such as “What is federal authority in these kind of cases? What is the law?”

“We need to know.”

In Kleinert’s case, “the feds pursued nothing,” once charges in state court were dismissed, Moore said.

We urge federal authorities to provide guidance in helping cities and counties understand and navigate the evermore complicated legal landscape local communities now face in addressing cases like Kleinert’s — hopefully before another incident happens.

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