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Judge puts Minnesota police force law on hold

By Brian Bakst

A judge on Monday put on hold a tougher standard on the use of deadly force by police officers until a lawsuit is resolved over the way a new law is constructed.

Ramsey County District Court Judge Leonardo Castro suspended the law passed in 2020 that requires officers to provide specific reasons to justify using lethal force.

Several law enforcement groups sued, saying that standard would infringe on constitutional protections against self-incrimination. The law went into effect in March, but there was little time between passage and enactment to train officers on the change.

Lawyers for the state sought unsuccessfully to have the case thrown out.

In granting the injunction, Castro said he will decide the constitutional question later.

“This Court concludes that plaintiffs’ challenge to the constitutionality of the peace officer use of force statute presents a justiciable controversy. Plaintiffs need not wait for one of its members to be charged with a homicide crime before the question of the constitutionality of the provision Plaintiffs challenge is answered,” Castro wrote. “The uncertainty and insecurity would be unconscionable.”

Castro, who stressed that he wasn’t second-guessing the reasons for the new standard, reinstated the old law where an apparent threat facing officers was enough to justify force.

Lawmakers who backed the change said the prior law often got in the way of police accountability. They said that officers resort too quickly to deadly force in tense situations and then tell investigators that they — or others in the public — faced an apparent threat. As a result, they said prosecutors often refused to bring charges.

But the law enforcement groups said requiring officers to review their actions in specific terms and reveal what they were thinking went too far. They said officers, like anyone else under investigation, could opt to say nothing and shouldn’t have their legal defense weakened because of their decision not to talk.

Castro ordered the sides to agree on a schedule within 10 days and said he would hold another hearing within two months.

In a statement, Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association executive director Jeff Potts called the decision “an important step in obtaining clarity in the use of deadly force statute for our officers across Minnesota.”

Republican Rep. Brian Johnson of Cambridge, the top Republican on the House Public Safety Committee, said the ruling affirms his belief that the law is unworkable.

“Fixing this half-baked policy should be a top priority next session,” Johnson said in a written statement.

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, who chairs the judiciary committee in the state Senate accused Democrats of not listening to the union representing officers in hundreds of suburban and rural police departments. “The new law also raised serious concern from border cities and neighboring states, which put our communities at risk,” Limmer said in a statement Monday.

Responding to a request for comment, a spokesperson for Gov. Tim Walz said attorneys were examining the ruling and will work with the Legislature if changes are required.