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Federal judge rules officer justified in 2012 shooting

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For over three years now, Morgan County Sheriff’s Sergeant Daniel Scott Peay has had a cloud of legal issues looming over his head over the shooting of Kristine Biggs Johnson. His silver lining was finally found when a federal judge ruled that Sergeant Peay was justified in the 2012 shooting.

The ruling comes as a result of a civil law suit filed by Ms. Johnson against Sergeant Peay and Morgan County.

The case stems from a November 24, 2012 incident when two Morgan County Deputies, Sergeant Peay and his brother Deputy Christian Peay, attempted to pull over a vehicle traveling on Interstate 84 without its lights on.

The driver refused to stop and led officers on a lengthy, high speed, pursuit.  Even after Johnson’s tires were spiked, she continued driving into Davis County where other officers joined the pursuit.

After exiting I84 onto a frontage road, Johnson stopped her vehicle, turned it around and drove directly at officers who had exited their vehicles in an attempt to apprehend her.

Sergeant Peay related that at some point his brother disappeared from his view leading him to believe that he had been struck by Johnson’s vehicle. Court documents said Sergeant Peay experienced “tunnel vision,” in this high stress situation.

At this point Sergeant Peay fired his weapon at Johnson in an attempt to reduce the threat level to other officers in the area.  The shot struck Johnson in her left eye.

In a memorandum filed August 8, 2016, U.S. District Court Judge Tena Campbell stated, “It is clear from the video [patrol vehicle dash camera] that when Ms. Johnson stopped and turned around, she had changed from flight mode to aggressive mode when she drove toward the cars [officers’ patrol cars] and struck them… Sergeant Peay was faced with a situation that was ‘tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving’.  Looking at the situation from the perspective of a reasonable officer in all of the circumstances, the court finds that Sergeant Peay’s use of force against Ms. Johnson was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.”

Court documents noted that in this case, “Sergeant Peay’s belief that Deputy Peay was in harm’s way was reasonable. The situation was rapidly changing… she had just deliberately hit Sergeant Peay’s truck. She was wielding a deadly weapon—i.e., the truck and she was heading in the direction Sergeant Peay last saw Deputy Peay…Sergeant Peay reasonably believed that Deputy Peay was about to be pinned between the two cars or otherwise hit.”

Only seven seconds elapsed between the second time Johnson backed up and the time she deliberately collided with Deputy Peay’s car.

The federal judge’s ruling contrasts and corrects Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings’ earlier finding that the shooting was unjustified.

Attorney representing Morgan County, Robert Stirba stated, “The [Davis] county attorney’s opinion is wrong.”  Judge Campbell places the responsibility for, and consequences of, the incident squarely on Ms. Johnson by stating, “The fact that Ms. Johnson drove her truck directly at him [Sgt Peay] and in the direction of other officers is not his [Sgt Peay’s] fault… courts have little difficulty in concluding that an officer’s reasonable perception that a vehicle may be used as a weapon may allow the use of deadly force.”

The entire chase and subsequent shooting was captured on officers’ dash camera videos, but the totality of the situation was more than what can be seen through the narrow lens of a video camera.  Judge Campbell stated “The court must rely on more than just the videotape evidence because videos do not show everything that is relevant to the court’s analysis.”

Court documents stated that the question of whether Deputy Peay was actually in danger is not relevant. “An officer may be found to have acted reasonably even if he has a mistaken belief as to the facts establishing the existence of exigent circumstances.”

The judge pointed out that Johnson was making her statement from the position of 20/20 hindsight. “The court may not evaluate the circumstances with 20/20 hindsight. In addition, it was shown that the video did not definitively support Ms. Johnson’s conclusion that Sergeant Peay had “plentyof time to look and find out where his brother was.”

She went on to say that in seven seconds time, in a high stress environment, it was not reasonable for an officer to take his eyes off a suspect who had just rammed her truck into the officer’s car and was driving her truck within feet of the officer toward another police car and officers.

“The court is not allowed to judge the officer’s actions in hindsight or second guess what the officer should have done, especially when the truck was being used as a weapon.”

Law enforcement officers must often make split second, life or death, decisions in the line of duty.  These decisions are then scrutinized for years by judges, attorneys, the media, and the public.  The Morgan County Sheriff’s Office is highly pleased with Judge Campbell’s ruling which brings finality and closure to this case almost four years after the incident.

Sergeant Peay also offered words of thanks to the community. He expressed his appreciation to his family, Sheriff Blaine Breshears, and all others who have provided support in this long and drawn out process. Sergeant Peay stated, “My family has been a great strength to me and Sheriff Breshears’ support has been amazing. I want everyone who has supported me to know how grateful I am.”

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