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Attorneys for former GRPD officer argue Michigan law allows police to shoot any fleeing felon

A group of protesters stand in front of a building whose sign reads "State of Michigan"
Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
Protestors call for justice for Patrick Lyoya outside the State of Michigan building in downtown Grand Rapids, where the Michigan Court of Appeals heard oral arguments Wednesday in the case of the officer charged with murdering Lyoya.

Attorneys for a former Grand Rapids police officer offered arguments today in a case that could have broad implications for policing statewide.

The attorneys asked a panel of Michigan Court of Appeals judges to overrule two lower court judges and toss out second-degree murder charges against Christopher Schurr, a former GRPD officer who shot and killed Patrick Lyoya while on duty last year.

Video shows Schurr shoot Lyoya in the back of the head after a struggle. Lyoya was facing the ground at the time, with Schurr standing over him.

“That circumstance was very dangerous,” said attorney Matt Borgula during his oral arguments in front of the judges in Grand Rapids on Wednesday.

Borgula said Schurr wrestled with Lyoya for two minutes and apparently lost control of his taser during the struggle.

“Under any standard, this situation would have put any officer in fear,” Borgula argued.

And that alone, he said, made the killing justified.

In Borgula’s view, Michigan law places virtually no restrictions on when officers can use deadly force against felony suspects who flee.

“I agree with the court and I agree with the lower court that perhaps this is something that the legislature should take up,” Borgula told the Court of Appeals. “And the Supreme Court urged them to do just that. But they did not.”

“There’s no parameters, there’s no safeguards on there."
Katie Wendt, attorney for Kent County Prosecutors office, describing the argument put forward by Christopher Schurr's defense attorneys.

Because Michigan has no written laws dictating when police officers are allowed to use deadly force, Borgula argued common law standards still apply. Those common law standards date back to the wild west, when fleeing felons were wanted “Dead or Alive.”

So far, both a district court judge and a circuit court judge have disagreed with this interpretation, both ruling that deadly force must be in some way necessary in the situation.

Wednesday, prosecutors pushed the Court of Appeals judges to uphold those rulings.

“The defense has never rebutted the logical inference of the standard that they’re advocating for with this court,” said Katie Wendt, an attorney for the Kent County Prosecutor’s Office.

“They’re saying I can use deadly force when met with force, and that’s it,” Wendt argued. “There’s no parameters, there’s no safeguards on there. Force could be as simple as a push. Force could be as simple as throwing my keys at you.”

When pushed on this theory, Borgula told the judges he didn’t believe the legal standard would cause officers to use deadly force more often than necessary, because they still could face losing their job, or a civil lawsuit.

If the court of appeals judges reject this argument and order the case to proceed, Schurr’s attorneys could file an additional appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court, which could cause further delays in a trial that was originally scheduled to begin almost six months ago.

Following the hearing Wednesday, Robert S. Womack, a former Kent County Commissioner who is close to the Lyoya family, said he hopes the judges allow the case to continue.

“It would be an injustice for it not to even go before a jury,” Womack said. Womack also called on legislators to clear up the law, and set a clear standard on police using deadly force. He said he didn’t believe Borgula’s arguments will ultimately prevail.

“But for the fact that it’s still out there where he can even bring it to court means that we have a lot to do in our society,” Womack said. “I don’t know what these legislators are waiting for when it comes to police reform and getting these laws right.”

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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