In 2019, the Justice Department announced that it would not pursue federal criminal civil rights charges against the two U.S. Park Police officers involved in the fatal shooting of Bijan Ghaisar during a traffic stop on Nov. 17, 2017. In which they said the following:
The Justice Department will not pursue federal criminal civil rights charges against the United States Park Police (USPP) officers involved in the fatal shooting of 25-year-old Bijan Ghaisar, the Department announced today.
Officials from the Civil Rights Division, the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) informed representatives of Mr. Ghaisar’s family today of this determination. Based on the information available at this time, the Department cannot prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the two USPP officers committed willful violations of the applicable federal criminal civil rights statute when they shot Mr. Ghaisar.
The Department conducted an extensive investigation into the shooting of Mr. Ghaisar. The FBI interviewed more than 150 individuals, including law enforcement officers from USPP, Fairfax County Police Department (FCPD), and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, as well as civilian and medical witnesses. Additionally, federal investigators sent evidence recovered by USPP investigators to the FBI Laboratory at Quantico, Virginia, for testing and analysis.
The evidence developed during this investigation indicated that at approximately 7:30 p.m. on Friday, November 17, 2017, Officers Amaya and Vinyard engaged in a vehicular pursuit involving Mr. Ghaisar on the George Washington Memorial Parkway (GWMP). A FCPD Lieutenant joined the pursuit on the GWMP, and the dash camera in his squad car captured a portion of the pursuit on video. The pursuit ended at the intersection of Fort Hunt Road and Alexandria Avenue in Fairfax County, Virginia, where the two USPP officers shot Mr. Ghaisar multiple times while Mr. Ghaisar was in the driver’s seat of his vehicle. Emergency medical personnel transported Mr. Ghaisar to INOVA Hospital, where he died 10 days later.
The focus of the Department’s investigation was to determine whether federal prosecutors could prove that the officers violated any federal laws, concentrating on the possible application of 18 U.S.C. § 242, a federal criminal civil rights statute. In order to establish a violation of this statute, the government must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the USPP officers acted willfully to deprive Mr. Ghaisar of a right protected by the Constitution or other law, here the Fourth Amendment right not to be subjected to an unreasonable seizure. The Department would have to prove not only that the officers used force that was constitutionally unreasonable, but that they did so “willfully,” which the Supreme Court has interpreted to mean they acted with a bad purpose to disregard the law. As this requirement has been interpreted by the courts, evidence that an officer acted out of fear, mistake, panic, misperception, negligence, or even poor judgment cannot establish the high level of intent required under Section 242.
At this time, there is insufficient evidence to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the officers willfully committed a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 242. Specifically, the Department is unable to disprove a claim of self-defense or defense of others by the officers. Accordingly, the Department has closed its investigation into this matter.
Following an extensive independent investigation, the department determined in 2019 that there was insufficient evidence to establish a willful violation of the applicable federal criminal civil rights statute. Yesterday, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division informed counsel for Ghaisar’s family that the department will not be reopening the federal investigation at this time.
To prevail under the federal civil rights statute, the Justice Department must prove that an officer, acting under color of law, willfully used unreasonable force. To establish willfulness, federal authorities must show that the officer acted with the deliberate and specific intent to do something the law forbids. This is one of the highest standards of intent imposed by law. Mistake, misperception, negligence or poor judgment are not sufficient to establish a federal criminal civil rights violation. Federal officials determined that this legal standard could not be met and closed the investigation in 2019.
After the federal investigation was closed, the Commonwealth of Virginia initiated a criminal prosecution of the two officers involved in Ghaisar’s tragic death, charging them with involuntary manslaughter and reckless use of a firearm. The state prosecution was then transferred to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. On Oct. 22, 2021, after consideration of evidentiary motions and briefs filed by the defendants and the Commonwealth, the U.S. District Court dismissed the Commonwealth’s criminal charges after finding the subject officers’ conduct was “necessary and proper” and “in accordance with federal law.”
Given the totality of the evidence reviewed, including the evidence amassed during the prior federal investigation, material submitted to the District Court, and the District Court’s findings and dismissal, the department does not have an adequate basis to reopen its prior investigation. The Justice Department remains committed to investigating allegations of unreasonable force by law enforcement officers and will continue to devote the resources required to ensure that all allegations of civil rights violations are thoroughly examined.