Officers acted properly in the fatal shooting of an unarmed man, are entitled to federal supremacy clause immunity, a judge rules.
A federal judge in Alexandria on Friday dismissed all criminal charges against two U.S. Park Police officers who fatally shot unarmed motorist Bijan Ghaisar in 2017, saying they reasonably feared that one of the officers was in danger, and that their actions following a pursuit of Ghaisar were “necessary and proper.”
Prosecutors for the Virginia Attorney General’s Office and the Fairfax County commonwealth’s attorney said they would appeal the ruling.
“Today is another affirmation that the system is built to cover up wrongdoing by police in our country,” Ghaisar’s family said in a statement Friday evening. “These officers shot at Bijan ten times, including several times as his car rolled away from them into a ditch. That’s not fearing for their lives, that’s murder.” The family agreed with the decision to appeal the case, saying, “We will not stop fighting for justice for Bijan.
Ghaisar, 25, was an accountant from McLean who was driving south on the George Washington Memorial Parkway in Alexandria on Nov. 17, 2017, when he suddenly stopped in a lane of traffic and was hit from behind by a Toyota Corolla, court records show. Ghaisar then drove away, the Corolla driver said, and the Corolla’s passenger called 911 to report the crash.
Park Police Officers Lucas Vinyard, 40, and Alejandro Amaya, 42, soon spotted Ghaisar’s Jeep Grand Cherokee in Alexandria and signaled him to pull over, but he drove off. On the parkway, Ghaisar stopped, was approached by Amaya with his gun drawn, and drove off. He did the same thing a second time after pulling off the parkway in Fairfax County. A Fairfax police lieutenant who joined the pursuit recorded the sequence of events on his in-car video camera.
Ghaisar stopped a third time in a residential neighborhood in the Fort Hunt area. Vinyard pulled his marked Park Police vehicle in front of Ghaisar to block him from driving away again, but as Amaya stood at the front of Ghaisar’s Jeep with his gun drawn, Ghaisar slowly rolled forward. Amaya and Vinyard began firing, the Fairfax police video shows. As the jeep moved twice more, each officer fired again. Ghaisar was mortally wounded and died 10 days later.
After two years, the Justice Department declined to charge the officers. Last year, Fairfax prosecutor Steve Descano took the case to a special grand jury that indicted Vinyard and Amaya on charges of involuntary manslaughter and reckless use of a firearm.
But the Constitution holds that states must defer to federal law, and federal officers generally have “supremacy clause” immunity from state prosecution if their actions are “necessary and proper” and undertaken as part of their duties. Vinyard and Amaya removed the case to federal court, and argued to Senior U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton that he should grant the immunity and dismiss the case. The officers did not testify at a hearing in August and have spoken only through court filings.
Hilton agreed the officers were entitled to immunity. He cited “Ghaisar’s dangerous driving behavior and refusal to pull over” as creating the context for what happened at the intersection of Fort Hunt Road and Alexandria Avenue. “Ghaisar appeared intoxicated while continually engaging in extremely reckless behavior and unusual driving,” Hilton wrote. Marijuana was found in the car and in Ghaisar’s blood, court records show, and the officers said they smelled pot smoke in the vehicle after the shooting.
“Considering the circumstances,” the judge opined, “the officers were reasonable to fear for Officer Amaya’s life and discharge their weapons when Ghaisar’s Jeep lurched forward while Officer Amaya was standing in front of Ghaisar’s vehicle. The officers’ decision to discharge their firearms was necessary and proper under the circumstances and there is no evidence that the officers acted with malice, criminal intent, or any improper motivation.”