I know that in Colorado we have the castle law for self defense which allows people to protect themselves with lethal force on or inside their property as long as they believe their life and family are in immediate danger. I’m not too keen on other States, but hypothetically, and god forbid, lets say a cop on duty and in uniform decides to commit a mass shooting at a public place. As an innocent bystander who sees no indication of lawful discharge, and witnesses others who did nothing wrong getting shot, if that bystander is armed and afraid of being the next person who gets shot. Could he or she use lethal force to stop the threat without facing legal consequences?
The answer provided by Dale M is half right, but there are a few things that I think are wrong.
Firstly, the actual reality of the situation doesn't matter. What matters is that you act in a reasonable manner, performing assessments of the situation as a reasonable person would do.
If you misread the situation, and end up killing a police officer that was acting in a lawful manner, it doesn't necessarily mean you were acting unlawfully yourself.
Because police officers are generally exposed to situations where they would be forced to use their firearm, that obviously would impact how a reasonable person would see the situation, but the test for reasonableness would not go out the window.
In addition, even if you were found to not be acting in a reasonable manner, there is certainly a question if you would be found guilty of a lesser charge of manslaughter rather than murder. It's possible the self-defence claim would be upheld as an imperfect defence.
Self defense is self defense
It doesn’t matter whom you are defending yourself (or others) from.
However, a police officer is allowed to use force in wider circumstances than anyone else. If you misread the situation and the officer was acting lawfully then what you did was murder, not self defense.
Self defense doesn’t depend upon who you are defending yourself against, it’s your state of mind and the facts known at the time, not an after action evaluation with 20-20 hindsight.
Absent shape shifting space-aliens, if you see someone walking around in the premmie icu shooting babies, killing the shooter is going to be self defense no matter what uniform the shooter is wearing or what badges they may be carrying.
More realistic scenarios will be considered on a case by case basis, with a great deal of bias on the side of “reasonable people don’t see police officers as mass shooters”. Your scenario might be sufficient to keep you from getting into trouble IF the uniformed person was in fact a mass shooter. But no guarantee. If you are on tape dancing around and singing “I shot the sheriff”, the fact that the person was not a police officer and was in fact a mass shooter may be insufficient to keep you out of jail. If the shots by the uniformed officer were in fact justified, your ignorance is not going to help you too much. You’ll need something better than “I saw a cop shooting people so of course I thought he was a bad guy”.
In pretty much all circumstances (outside your home, if you are in a Castle Doctrine state), before you ask yourself "should I shoot that person?", you should first ask yourself "can I get to safety by removing myself from this situation?"
If the answer to the second question is yes, then I have a hard time imagining that you would succeed in your self-defense argument.
EDIT: My intent is to offer a perspective that might be shared by members of your hypothetical jury or others. If this is not how Law.SE should be used, please say so, and I'll be on my way. 🙂
Otherwise, allow me to elaborate:
Shooting someone should be a last resort. If you have an option that involves no death, take it. If you believe that an on-duty, uniformed police officer is acting unlawfully in the manner described, I would recommend that you:
- In this case, I would recommend authorities of a different but overlapping jurisdiction. For example, if it's a city police officer, call the county or the state. You don't want the authorities who show up to be buddies with the shooter.
As an innocent bystander who sees no indication of lawful discharge, and witnesses others who did nothing wrong getting shot
Just because you see no indication of lawfulness does not mean the act is not lawful. Just because you didn't see the victims doing something wrong does not mean they haven't. You are taking your assumptions and betting an awful lot on them.
Your original question was:
Could he or she use lethal force to stop the threat without facing legal consequences?
Without consequences? I can't imagine.
If you shoot a uniformed police officer, justified or otherwise, you had better count on being arrested. If you're lucky, your story gets corroborated, the charges dropped before trial, and you walk. But none of that matters: you now have an arrest on your record, and that will carry legal consequences for the rest of your life.
An approach to identifying if they were commiting a crime would first need to be established.
How do you know he is 'shooting up the place' and not performing his duties against a gang or alternative bad scenario?
Are they just 'executing' citizens for no apparent reason of course you can use lethal force to prevent the loss of life. Police officers are exactly that. Officers, they are humans who are subject to the law themselves. When they are 'on duty' their personal agenda's are not to be involved in their conduct. If it is then they are no longer a Police officer, just a criminal wearing a costume in the eyes of the law.