Supreme Court: Excessive police force need not constitute criminal offense

A PPA officer. Source: PPA

A Supreme Court decision has found that a police officer violating law enforcement laws in Estonia in their use of physical force need not mean a crime has been committed, overruling earlier county and circuit court judgments. The decision arose from a case which had reached the Supreme Court involving a Police and Border Guard (PPA) official, who kicked a suspect twice following a vehicle chase.

An officer would only be found guilty of an abuse of power in a criminal offense sense by "manifestly abusing physical force", ERR's online news in Estonia reports.

The relevant criminal case established that two Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) officers were in pursuit of a suspect who was driving an ATV and did not heed the officers' warning to stop.

The PPA officers were in a patrol car, and one of them subsequently approached the ATV on foot once it had halted, standing in front of it.

The officer, named in the media as Mark Tenin, then kicked the suspect in the chest and dragged them off the ATV, kicking them again once they, the suspect, were in a prone position on the ground, it is reported.

Tenin - who ran in the 2019 Riigikogu elections for the Social Democratic Party on a law and order platform, though he did not win a seat - stood charged with illegally using physical force in respect of the second kick, and was found guilty by the county court, a decision upheld by the second-tier circuit court.

Both courts found the suspect did not present any danger once they were extricated from the ATV, making the second use of physical force unacceptable and disproportionate.

The Supreme Court's criminal chamber agreed with the county and circuit courts that the officer had used excessive physical force under the meaning found in the Law Enforcement Act.

A coercive measure such as restraining the suspect would have been sufficient, rather than a strike, once they were on the ground, the courts found; even though the second kick occurred very soon after the first, there was still no reason to believe the suspect would continue to put up resistance meriting that approach.

However, the Supreme Court found that in this case the use of force, while excessive, did not constitute a criminal offense, and thus he was acquitted of the charge of abuse of power.

Based on precedent, the court found that such a charge can only lead to a conviction in very clear and obvious cases of misuse of force.

In other words, a violation of the Law Enforcement Act by a police officer in the area of physical force does not always mean a criminal offense has been committed. 

Nonetheless, in the case of minor offenses, disciplinary action can be taken by the PPA itself.

A mitigating factor was the suspect's actions leading up to the incident, which the court found to be irresponsible, noting his fleeing and ignoring of the police warning to stop would have made it not entirely clear if he was going to resist being apprehended or not.

Tenin thus had a very short time in which to act and the two kicks should be seen in that context.

The decision comes as the use of police force is in the international spotlight, following the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN, after being restrained by the police in a method which included an office kneeling on his neck for several minutes.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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