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Federal judge revives part of lawsuit over 2017 Salt Lake police shooting of Black man

Attorneys for family of Patrick Harmon say move invites scrutiny of state constitutional safeguard not often tested

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A bicyclist rides past a mural of Patrick Harmon, who was shot and killed by police in 2017, in Salt Lake City on Monday, July 13, 2020. A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit from Harmon’s family, rejecting their allegations of excessive force and racial discrimination.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge on Friday revived part of a lawsuit from the family of a Black man shot and killed by a Salt Lake police officer in 2017, sending it back to a state court for review.

Attorneys for the family of Patrick Harmon say the move invites scrutiny of a state constitutional safeguard not often tested in the courts. Utah is one of just five states whose constitutions ban law enforcers and corrections officers from treating those arrested or imprisoned with “unnecessary rigor.”

Andrew Deiss, an attorney for the family, called the Friday development “the right outcome.”

“They’re not out for blood,” Deiss said of his clients. “They’re not seeking much more than a recognition of a wrong.”

U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby found in July that officer Clinton Fox was “legally objectively reasonable” in shooting 50-year-old Harmon three times in August 2017.

Police stopped Harmon after he rode his bike across six lanes on State Street near 1000 South without a required rear light.

They began to arrest him on outstanding warrants when he broke into a run, then turned back toward them with what Fox later told investigators he believed was a knife.

Fox said Harmon threatened to cut him, although body camera footage does not capture a knife or such a statement. Fox shot Harmon three times, yelling, “I’ll (expletive) shoot you,” the footage shows. Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Brown has stood by the officer and Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill ruled that the use of deadly force was legally justified.

The family’s attorneys, Deiss and Corey Riley, said they are seeking to find out more about a knife found near Harmon’s hand after the shooting.

Attorneys for Fox and the city did not immediately respond to messages left Friday.

In July, Shelby dismissed the Harmon family’s claims of civil rights violations under the U.S. Constitution, a ruling Harmon’s adult children, Patrick Harmon II and Tasha Smith, have appealed to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

Shelby also tossed two remaining legal claims based on state law — the one for excessive rigor and another for wrongful death — declining to review them because they’re tied to the Utah Constitution and not the federal Constitution.

On Friday, Shelby issued a ruling remanding those claims to state court, siding with attorneys for the family who argued they deserve to be heard more quickly than if the lawyers needed to file another lawsuit. Shelby had dismissed the pair of claims without prejudice, meaning they could be revived in the future.

His decision comes a little more than a week after Salt Lake City announced changes to its policies, raising the bar for when a police officer can use deadly force and penalizing those who don’t turn on body cameras. A Salt Lake-area police union criticized the new standards, saying many are already a part of existing department policy, or in state and federal laws.

The family’s attorneys said the judge’s move will invite a legal test in Utah of the “unnecessary rigor” issue not often raised in Utah.

Utah’s constitution doesn’t define unnecessary rigor. But the Utah Supreme Court has ruled that an official’s actions meet the standard if they “presented a substantial risk of serious injury for which there was no reasonable justification at the time.”

It sometimes arises in civil rights suits, but those cases are often transferred to federal courts, which are reluctant to rule on something of a novel state issue, Deiss said.

Just a handful of other states have similar bans in their constitutions: Indiana, Oregon, Wyoming and Tennessee.

In Utah, a further hearing in Salt Lake City’s 3rd District Court has not yet been scheduled.