July 09, 2015
When is it acceptable for a private citizen to shoot a bank robbery suspect?
That question will have to be answered by prosecutors in the Montgomery District Attorney’s office after Hatboro councilman George Forgeng (R) pursued an alleged bank robber Wednesday and shot him in the arm and hand.
EARLIER STORY: Hatboro official chases, shoots bank robbery suspect
“Anybody can chase anybody,” said Jules Epstein, a law professor at Temple University. The question becomes when can force be used?
Kevin Phillip-Johnson Way, 30, is charged with robbing a TD Bank branch at York Road and West Lehman Avenue in Hatboro. Prosecutors allege he threatened the teller that he would “start shooting” if he wasn’t handed money. After receiving a bag with cash Way fled. When he was outside, a dye pack exploded on him, according to prosecutors.
The district attorney's office gave the following account: Forgeng (pictured left) said he saw the dye pack burst and gave chase for about a quarter mile. Forgeng told police he thought the suspect was armed because he had robbed a bank and yelled for Way to get on the ground. The suspect stopped running and started coming toward him, Forgeng said. At that point, Forgeng, who is licensed to carry a concealed weapon, said he fired and hit the suspect, who was treated at Abington Memorial Hospital for non-life threatening injuries. No gun was found on Way.
Forgeng is cooperating with investigators.
Kevin Steele, first assistant district attorney in the county, told the Inquirer that there were certain aspects of the shooting his office was going to examine. Neither the DA's office nor Forgeng returned calls from PhillyVoice on Thursday.
One legal expert, however, said investigators would have a number of issues to consider in the case.
Daniel Filler, professor of law at Drexel University, said Pennsylvania law demands proportionality when deadly force is used – a serious threat has to be faced for that level of force to be justified.
"You just can't shoot someone," Filler said. "What kind of risk was he facing?"
In this case, a jury might be sympathetic to a citizen who was facing a bank robber who could reasonably be believed to be armed, he said.
Two issues can be considered: the formal law, where this case could be a close call, and the law as it is practiced, where juries might be sympathetic to someone who was chasing a robbery suspect, Filler said.
"Even if [Forgeng] is charged, I suspect a jury would be slow to convict a person under these circumstances," Filler said. "Shooting at someone is deadly force, but in this case, the argument will be that he believes that such force is necessary to protect himself."
To find a jury that would uniformly condemn an individual who, in the end, did not kill the suspect, could prove difficult, the professor said.
"There are so many people ... who will say 'Give the guy a medal.'"