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New Mexico Sheriff Puts Alec Baldwin On Notice: ‘This is a criminal investigation’

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A New Mexico sheriff told Fox News today that the movie set shooting involving Alec Baldwin was being treated as a criminal investigation. Sante Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza said he would be careful using the word accident as he believes the death to be preventable.

He said: “I’d be careful using the word ‘accident.’ This is obviously a tragedy and it was avoidable, so right now it’s a criminal investigation.”

“I will confirm that we haven’t ruled anybody out in regards to charges in this case. It’s still an active investigation and we’re still gathering statements and facts,” said Mendoza.

The Santa Fe County District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies said: “We haven’t ruled out anything. Everything at this point, including criminal charges, is on the table. There were an enormous amount of bullets on this set, and we need to find out what kinds they were.”

Carmack-Altwies added that it was not a prop gun. “It was a legit gun,” she said, “It was an antique-era appropriate gun.” Officials are investigating who loaded the gun with ammunition and what type of round was used.

Legal scholar Jonathan Turley said Baldwin could be criminally charged in the fatal shooting because Baldwin was also a producer of the movie.

Turley says if the reports coming from the set detailing neglect and failure to act after similar misfires all the producers could be hit with involuntary manslaughter charges. Turley goes on to say Baldwin will face an uphill battle fighting any civil lawsuit.

Turley wrote: “The fatal shooting at Bonanza Creek Ranch already has the makings of a blockbuster legal action. Within 24 hours of actor Alec Baldwin fatally shooting cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and wounding the director, witnesses have raised serious questions of negligent and unsafe practice on the site for the low-budget film, “Rust.” That has led to question of both criminal and civil liability for Baldwin and others involved in the tragic shooting.

The question raised most often in the aftermath of the shooting is whether Baldwin could be charged criminally. The answer, in one word, is “yes.” However, much depends on the still unfolding facts around this fatal mishap with the prop gun.

New Mexico has a provision that allows “involuntary manslaughter” charges for “the commission of a lawful act which might produce death in an unlawful manner or without due caution and circumspection.” If there was a pattern of neglect, including prior discharges from these prop weapons, the producers could be charged with involuntary manslaughter. Such a charge is a fourth-degree felony in New Mexico, with a penalty of 18 months jail time and up to $5,000 in fines.

The difficulty for criminal defense attorneys in dealing with such charges is that they do not require “specific intent.” Given prior deaths from prop guns (as with Brandon Lee in the movie “The Crow”), the danger of a fatal mistake was foreseeable. However, such charges are rare and unlikely in this case absent stronger evidence of knowledge or involvement by Baldwin in the preparation or handling of these props. 

The most likely liability for Baldwin would stem from civil liability in the form of a wrongful death action. Indeed, the question is not whether but when the first torts lawsuit will be filed. 

If there is a criminal charge, a court could opt to delay any tort action until after the prosecution. However, the statute of limitations is three years for personal injury cases. They need only to file within that time. Indeed, a prosecution could strengthen the case by benefitting from evidence acquired by police and produced by the prosecution.

In the end, the liability may be delayed but will likely be considerable. The attorneys for the production company are likely to move quickly to seek settlements of civil claims, particularly with the family,” he wrote.

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