CINCINNATI (AP) — Criminal prosecutions rarely result from an obscure law that private citizens have turned to in a push for charges in connection with a pair of fatal Ohio police shootings, according to legal experts.
The law allows private citizens to make complaints and have them reviewed by a judge who can refer them to a prosecutor for further review.
It was used unsuccessfully to have Cleveland police prosecuted in the fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who had a pellet gun near a recreation center. A judge sufficient evidence to refer charges to a prosecutor, who then recommended that a grand jury not indict the officers.
This week, a judge found sufficient evidence to show a 911 caller could be prosecuted for making false alarms after he reported a man waving a gun in a Dayton-area Wal-Mart. John Crawford III, who was black, had picked up an air rifle from a shelf and was shot by a white officer responding to the Beavercreek store on Aug. 5, 2014.
Whether caller Ronald Ritchie will be charged is up to a prosecutor, Fairborn City Solicitor Betsy Deeds, who’s reviewing the matter.
In the Wal-Mart case, nine citizens submitted surveillance video synchronized to the 911 call along with sworn statements accusing Ritchie of law violations including making false alarms, involuntary manslaughter, inciting violence and inducing panic.
“Based on the false information given by Ronald Ritchie during his 911 call, the Beavercreek Police officers located John Crawford III and shot him almost immediately,” the affidavits say.
The judge concluded there wasn’t sufficient evidence to merit a criminal complaint on any allegations other than making false alarms.
Michael Benza, a criminal law professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, says the current version of the Ohio law used by the citizens dates back to at least 1960 and was designed to get around prosecutors who — for whatever reason — refuse to pursue charges.
“The trouble is that the law contains no mechanism to compel prosecution,” Benza said.
He and other legal experts also say that it would be difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Ritchie knew what he was calling in was false.
“When there are 911 calls or a police complaint, there are almost never any consequences for a false complaint,” said Christo Lassiter, a criminal law professor at the University of Cincinnati.
A potential problem if Ritchie is charged is that others could be deterred from making 911 calls, legal experts said.
Prosecutor Deeds said in her statement Friday that she hopes that this week’s decision doesn’t have that effect.
Benza says private citizens rarely use the Ohio law and similar ones at the federal level and in other states to seek charges “because prosecutors do it.”
Ritchie was the only person to call 911 before shots were fired. He reported then that a man walking around the store was waving what appeared to be a rifle and was “pointing it at people.” The next day, Ritchie told authorities the man actually didn’t point the gun but swung it around and flashed the muzzle at children.
Ritchie and his wife told investigators the gun looked like an assault rifle he owned and said they saw no orange tip to indicate it was an air rifle. Police also said they believed Crawford, 22, had a real rifle and said he didn’t respond to commands to put it down — something the soundless surveillance video can’t corroborate.
There was no answer Friday to calls to Florida and Ohio phone numbers currently associated with Ritchie. He lived in Riverside, Ohio, at the time of the shooting.
Crawford’s relatives and their attorneys have said Crawford posed no threat. A grand jury concluded the shooting was justified, and the U.S. Department of Justice is reviewing the case.
Ritchie isn’t named Crawford’s family’s lawsuit against the police and Wal-Mart. Though Ritchie was mistaken, the family blames police for what happened, family attorney Michael Wright said.
Associated Press writer Kantele Franko in Columbus contributed to this report.