Defense attorneys seek to move Bijan Ghaisar case to federal court

Attorneys representing the two U.S. Park Police officers charged in the 2017 shooting death of Bijan Ghaisar are seeking to move their cases to federal court.

In two separate motions filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in Alexandria, attorneys for officers Lucas Vinyard and Alejandro Amaya said the officers were performing their duties as federal officers when Ghaisar, 25, of McLean, was shot after a car chase on the George Washington Parkway in 2017.

Moving the case to federal court would likely complicate the prosecution of the two officers since they are expected to argue they have immunity from state charges because they were carrying out their official duties as federal law enforcement officers when Ghaisar was shot and killed.

“So getting the case into federal court is the first step for them to assert they are immune from state prosecution. In short, it’s a way to avoid having a trial on this issue and short-circuit our prosecution,” Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano said.

Just last month, Vinyard and Amaya were indicted by a grand jury in Fairfax County on one count of manslaughter and one count of reckless discharge of a firearm. They were released on $10,000 bond.

The filing seeking to move the case to federal court came one day before the three-year anniversary of Ghaisar’s death.

“Today should be a day for the Ghaisar family to reflect and celebrate the memory of their son,” said Descano, who secured the indictments against the officer, in a statement. “Instead, they have to hear the news that there’s yet another development standing in the way of seeking justice for Bijan.”

Descano pledged that he would not give up the effort to bring the case to trial.

“They’ve taken the first step in moving it to federal court, so they can assert an immunity defense. It is our job to continue to fight to get justice for Bjjan, for the Ghaisar family and for the community, and that is what our intention is,” Descano said.

The case had drawn critical attention from lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who accused the U.S. Park Police of “stonewalling” efforts to investigate the shooting.

On Nov. 17, 2017, Vinyard and Amaya responded to a lookout call for a black Jeep involved in a hit-and-run. Once they found the Jeep, owned by Ghaisar, officers pulled him over, but Ghaisar pulled away, leading to a start-and-stop car chase.

Dashcam video released by Fairfax County police showed the chase heading into a residential neighborhood, and Ghaisar’s Jeep stopping twice before officers approached the car with guns drawn. On a third stop, both officers shot and killed Ghaisar as his Jeep moved forward.

In attempting to apprehend Ghaisar and ensuring the safety of Amaya, Vinyard “reasonably believed that his actions were justified in carrying out his federal duties” during the shooting, Vinyard’s attorney, David Crowley, said in the Monday motion.

“While reserving his right to dispute the allegations, Officer Vinyard asserts that at the time in question, he was acting as a federal officer,” Crowley wrote, and he can use the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which says federal laws take precedence over state laws, in his defense.

Last year, the U.S. Justice Department declined to bring charges against either officer.

The motions by both defense attorneys seek an evidentiary hearing to determine whether the case should be moved to federal court.

At the time both officers were indicted, Descano had predicted their defense attorneys would attempt to move the case to federal court.

He said then that Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring’s office would take the lead in responding to the federal issues and get those addressed before going to trial.

A status hearing for both defendants is scheduled for Nov. 23.

WTOP’s Neal Augenstein and Megan Cloherty contributed to this story.

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