Naked, Former College Football Player Killed by Police
By Paul Irlando
At 3:30 a.m. on January 14, after a long night of drinking and partying at a number of Hollywood, California clubs, Reginald Doucet, Jr., a 25-year-old former college football player at Middle Tennessee State University, and current personal trainer and part-time model, took a taxi to his apartment in Playa Vista, California. What happened next is as strange as it is tragic.
The taxi driver told police that after he drove his fare, Mr. Doucet, to his destination, Mr. Doucet informed him that he had no money to pay for his ride. An argument ensued and Mr. Doucet proceeded to remove all of his clothes. Naked, Mr. Doucet then started jumping up and down on nearby cars and yelling; the driver and neighbors, alarmed by the disturbance, called the police. Two officers arrived on the scene, one of whom, the eventual shooter, had only been on the force for 17 months. They attempted to calm Mr. Doucet down and were able to get him to put his undergarments back on. The trio ended up in an alcove near the entrance to Mr. Doucet’s apartment where Mr. Doucet allegedly attacked both officers and reached for one of their guns. That’s when he was shot twice. Both officers on the scene were taken to the hospital with minor injuries. Mr. Doucet died from his wounds.
The LA Weekly and various other news outlets (see here and here) did an excellent job reporting the bizarre facts surrounding the shooting, but didn’t discuss the legal standard used for determining whether the incident was justifiable homicide, or whether Mr. Doucet’s family has a potential claim against the LAPD for wrongful death – a claim often brought after such shootings. We’ve done some research on California’s justifiable homicide law; here’s what we think:
The test for determining whether a homicide by police officers was justifiable under California law is whether the circumstances reasonably created a fear of death or serious bodily harm to the officer or to another. It is an objective test, viewed from the vantage of a reasonable officer on the scene. When reviewing these cases, appellate courts in California are highly deferential to the police officers’ need to protect themselves and others. And with good reason. As this recent NBC Nightly News report points out, 14 police officers have been shot in the line of duty throughout the U.S. since January 1.
But friends and family of Mr. Doucet, along with local community leaders, point out that he was nearly naked, visibly unarmed, and outnumbered. They can’t figure out why an officer would use deadly force in such a situation.
Paul Weber, President of the LA Police Union, quoted in this Chattanoogan.com opinion piece, defended the officers. “The officer-involved shooting of Reggie Doucet Jr. involved two officers literally fighting for their lives against Mr. Doucet. It is surprising to see that the first reaction of respected community (leaders) is to question the actions of the police. Apparently, because a suspect is naked they aren’t a threat.”
A California court is likely to take the side of the police officers. While questions of reasonableness are fact specific, and the facts here make this a close case, two California cases illustrate that a claim against the officers would likely fail. In Dehertoghe v. City of Hemet, a ninth circuit case decided in 2003, the victim, belligerent, assaulted an officer by hitting him on the back of the neck (resulting in a mild concussion). The officer, who carried a firearm and was losing the fight, shot and killed the victim. The court held that the officer was justified in using deadly physical force.
In Billington v. Smith, another ninth circuit case, decided in 2001, the victim and officer were involved in a struggle when the victim reached for the officers gun. The officer got to it first and killed the victim. The victim successfully resisted arrest, physically attacked the officer, and tried to turn the gun against him, and the threat of injury had already been realized by the victim’s blows and kicks. The court held the homicide was justified.
If Mr. Doucet’s estate brings a claim against the LAPD, one issue will be whether those deciding the case will find the officers’ statements about Mr. Doucet reaching for the gun credible. If so, it is likely that the officer’s actions will be deemed justifiable homicide. As seen in this video, what upsets friends of Mr. Doucet most is that his side of the story can never be told.
Not so fast. The management of Mr. Doucet’s apartment complex has told police that surveillance video showing exactly what happened that fateful night may exist.
The NAACP is now involved (note though that the officer who shot the victim is himself African American), and Mr. Doucet’s family has retained the services of the Los Angeles-based law firm founded by the late Johnnie Cochran to represent them in all matters related to the shooting.
We’ll keep you updated.
UPDATE: Mr. Doucet’s estate has filed a wrongful death suit.