You probably recall the sad case of Walter Scott, the South Carolina motorist who wound up in an altercation with police officer Michael Slager and was subsequently tased and then shot five times in the back as he slowly attempted to run away. Slager was charged with Scott’s murder and faces trial in October with additional federal charges pending but not yet scheduled for a court date. He’s no doubt running up some hefty legal fees throughout the process but the PBA which would normally be covering all of those costs is asking to be allowed to refuse payment. (Charleston Post and Courier)
After Slager shot Scott on April 4, 2015, he hired an attorney through the association. But Charleston lawyer David Aylor dropped the client three days later when video showed Slager firing as Scott tried to run away, and the association refused to fund Slager’s defense any longer.
Slager sued in U.S. District Court, saying the group violated an insurance contract that promised unlimited legal aid if he were involved in a shooting. The association on Thursday asked a judge for “summary judgment,” an order that would end Slager’s claims before trial.
“Mr. Slager’s shooting an unarmed Mr. Scott five times in the back as he fled, planting the Taser behind Mr. Scott’s body, and lying to the PBA and (the State Law Enforcement Division) are intentional acts outside the scope of Mr. Slager’s duty as a police officer,” the association’s attorney, James Bradley of West Columbia, argued in the filing.
As I wrote back when this first happened, I see very little in the way of a defense for Slager in this case. Even speaking as someone who has traditionally given law enforcement officers every possible benefit of the doubt when the subject of police shootings comes up, I find it difficult to believe that anyone could watch the horrific video of that fatal encounter and not come away feeling that they’d just witnessed footage of a flat out murder followed by a bad cop moving evidence in an attempt to dirty up the crime scene. But with that said, Slager remains innocent until proven guilty and is entitled to an attorney to represent him in court.
That fact doesn’t seem to be relevant to the situation which Slager is facing now, however. Just because you have the right to an attorney, that doesn’t mean you are entitled to any attorney you want. If you can’t afford one, the court is supposed to appoint a defense lawyer for you but they’re going to be coming from the state, not one of the pricier law firms out there.
So does that mean that the PBA should be able to ditch him and refuse to pay his attorney fees? I’m not so sure about that part. Even assuming that the client is guilt of every single offense with which he’s charged, he did have a contractual agreement with the PBA and had been paying them a monthly fee to ensure that service. This seems to be essentially an insurance policy and his contributions can be thought of as the premiums on that policy. Their argument is that he is only entitled to have his legal fees covered if he got into trouble over actions taken in the line of duty and his alleged actions fall outside of the scope of those duties. That’s a pretty weak argument if you ask me. First of all, until he is convicted, those claims about his malicious actions are alleged, not proven. And if the PBA can get away with this, then any time a police officer is accused of some wrongdoing in a lethal force encounter they could turn around and refuse to cover the legal fees, including when it turns out that the shooting was justified.
Personally, I expect Slager to be found guilty and handed a very steep sentence, but until that happens he’s just another person on trial and he is owed the same considerations any other citizen would be under similar circumstances. The PBA should probably just agree to pay the bills and hold their nose until this whole unpleasant affair is concluded.