Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Should stores be allowed to hire cops as hit men?

Should a business get a pass when they hire cops to do store security and the cop then over-reacts to a situation?
Off-duty officers can bring certain perks to the private companies that hire them, including protection by real law-enforcement officials and patrons who feel more secure.

But in a new court case, a Houston civil rights lawyer argues that establishments hire off-duty officers for another reason: zero liability if an officer's actions switch from private to professional.

A legal tangle
So far, Texas Court of Appeals judges in Houston have decided that businesses have no liability for an officer working private detail but performing a public duty. And in many cases, the agency the officer works for is also protected from lawsuits through government immunity.

A legal question is emerging in the lawsuits filed on behalf of a shoplifter who was shot three times by Harris County Deputy William Wilkinson outside a Dillard's in Humble three years ago.

The legal tangle includes a federal case on appeal and a new state court lawsuit about the shooting injuries of Robert Barkley. Barkley pleaded guilty to theft; an aggravated assault charge was dismissed.

Barkley's lawyer, Randall Kallinen, believes private employers, not just police agencies, should be liable for an off-duty officer who hurts somebody when he or she springs into official action. Kallinen says that when Dillard's directed Wilkinson to pursue Barkley into the parking lot, the store overstepped by taking a government action.

When Barkley ran out of the store, Wilkinson followed. Barkley jumped into his car and tried to drive away. In Wilkinson's account of the incident, Barkley tried to ram him with the vehicle and pinned him between parked cars. The deputy opened fire.

Barkley, who lives in Florida, sued Dillard's, Wilkinson and Harris County in federal court for excessive force and civil rights violations, but that portion of the case was dismissed.

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