ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — Local prosecutors are not entitled to second-guess the split-second judgments of two U.S. Park Police officers who fatally shot an unarmed motorist after a stop-and-go chase in northern Virginia, lawyers for the officers argued Monday.
The two officers, Alejandro Amaya and Lucas Vinyard, say they are entitled as federal officers to immunity from local prosecutors, who charged them with involuntary manslaughter in the 2017 shooting of Bijan Ghaisar after a chase on the George Washington Memorial Parkway outside the nation's capital.
Jonathan Fahey, a lawyer for Amaya, said the shooting was well within the bounds of reasonable conduct under the circumstances.
“Their belief was that Officer Amaya's life was in danger because he was going to be run over” by Ghaisar when he tried to pull away from the officers, who'd approached Ghaisar's Jeep for a third time with guns drawn, only to see Ghaisar drive off, or attempt to do so, each time. “They also believed other lives were in danger.”
Ghaisar was fatally shot after authorities say he left the scene of an accident.
Dashcam video released by Fairfax County Police, which played a supporting role in the chase, shows the chase beginning on the parkway, then continuing into a residential neighborhood. It shows the car driven by Ghaisar stopping twice during the chase, and officers approaching the car with guns drawn. In both cases, Ghaisar drives off.
At the third and final stop, the officers again approach with guns drawn, and Amaya standing in front of the driver’s door. When the car starts to move, Amaya opens fire. Seconds later, when the car begins moving again, both Amaya and Vinyard fire multiple shots.
Fahey said the officers acted within the bounds of their training. He noted that the officers' supervisor was aware of the chase and never advised them to call it off. He also said that the officers' decision to approach Ghaisar with guns drawn was based on training they'd received that traffic stops are inherently dangerous. He said Park Police officer are taught “when in doubt, pull it out” when it comes to drawing your weapon.
There are only a handful of cases under which officers were not allowed to invoke immunity from state prosecution and they involve far more egregious conduct that what occurred in Ghaisar's shooting, Fahey said. He said those examples include officers who were drunk on duty.
At Monday's hearing in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, prosecutors seeking to move ahead with a manslaughter trial said the officers' lawyers are overstating the bounds of immunity. Michelle Kallen with the Virginia Attorney General's Office said recent Supreme Court precedent emphasizes the state's right to protect public safety as it sees fit without interference from the federal government.
Kallen played video of the shooting in court. She said it would be a “breathtaking lack of government accountability” if Fairfax County was barred from bringing criminal charges after the Justice Department declined to do so as well.
She also said the concept of “when in doubt, pull it out” does not square with Park Police general orders that call for drawing weapons only in cases with an imminent degree of danger.
And she disputed the notion that Amaya's life was at risk when Ghaisar started to drive off a third time. She said it's not at all clear that the slow-moving car presented a danger, and questioned why the officer had positioned himself in front of the car in the first place.
The judge, Claude Hilton, said he will rule on the officers' immunity claims at a later date in a written order.
Matthew Barakat, The Associated Press