By: Molly Alcorn
Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old African American man, was in his grandparent’s backyard late one night when Sacramento police officers shot and killed him. National news screamed about police brutality. Protests against police flooded the streets and the internet.
AB 931 was an attempt to combat the rise of deadly police shootings in California. Assemblymember Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) introduced AB 931 in order to raise the standard for deadly force when used by peace officers. However, as it moved through the California Legislature, more and more pieces of the bill were left behind.
AB 931 was notable in a few ways.
First, AB 931 would have changed California law so that “Homicide is justifiable when committed by public officers and those acting by their command in their aid and assistance . . . when necessary given the totality of the circumstances . . . unless committed by a public officer whose gross negligence substantially contributed to making it necessary.”
AB 931 would have additionally amended the California Penal Code to, “Notwithstanding any other law, a peace officer may use deadly force only when such force is necessary to prevent imminent and serious bodily injury or death to the officer or to a third party.”
The legislation defined “Necessary” as “given the totality of the circumstances, a reasonable peace officer would conclude that there was no reasonable alternative to the use of deadly force that would prevent imminent death or serious bodily injury to the peace officer or to a third party.”
This is where the opposition began. AB 931 prohibited officers from using deadly force if the officers were at fault for creating the need to use force. Basically, if an officer provoked someone and then had to use deadly force to stop them, the officer would be liable. This provision was similar to the “provocation rule” from City of Los Angeles, California v. Mendez, a previous California court decision. However, this provision conflicted with the Supreme Court’s finding that liability could not be placed on officers involved in deadly shootings if they were reckless or provoked the need to use deadly force. The provision was removed.
Additionally, AB 931 stated that officers could still be liable for using deadly force if they failed to meet the reasonable standard under the Penal Code § 196. This meant that if an officer acted in a way that was incompatible with proper regard to human life or where a reasonable officer would have foreseen that their conduct would create a likelihood for death or serious bodily harm, they could be held liable. Officers and interested parties protested this, citing that the Supreme Court held in Graham v. Connor that hindsight could not be used to establish liability. The provision was removed.
Additional amendments were made due to arguments over the impact of AB 931. Proponents, such as Professor Seth Stoughton, civil rights groups, and members within the legislature, argued that the bill would not harm officers following the law and would benefit the public. Opponents, such as police interest groups, argued that AB 931 would adversely affect peace officers and their training and liability.
Amendments aside, AB 931 was held in committee in the Senate effectively killing the legislation. Thus, the standard of care for police officers remains unchanged since enacted in 1872.
To learn more about SB 822, listen to my interview on “In Session,” a podcast from the University of the Pacific Law Review.
Molly Alcorn is a staff writer for the University of the Pacific Law Review and law student student at McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento.