Cleveland Municipal Judge Ronald Adrine's ruling is advisory; no charges have been filed. Prosecutors will review the decision.
The judge noted that a higher burden of proof, "beyond a reasonable doubt," is required for conviction.
Adrine found probable cause to charge Officer Timothy Loehmann with "murder, reckless homicide, negligent homicide, involuntary manslaughter and dereliction of duty." The judge also found probable cause to charge Loehmann's partner, Frank Garmback, with negligent homicide and dereliction of duty.
"This is the first positive step toward justice for this family," Michael Nelson, an attorney for a group of citizens who asked the court to bring charges earlier in the week, told the Los Angeles Times.
Although the decision could be considered a moral victory for local activists, who were infuriated by the acquittal last month of a Cleveland police officer charged in a deadly 2012 pursuit, legal experts said the ruling has "zero legal impact" on Loehmann and Garmback.
City prosecutors said they had referred the ruling to Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty, who issued a short statement: "This case, as with all other fatal use of deadly force cases involving law enforcement officers, will go to the grand jury. That has been the policy of this office since I was elected. Ultimately, the grand jury decides whether police officers are charged or not charged."
But Dressler told The Times that Adrine's ruling could pressure the prosecutor or the grand jurors.
"The way I see it is that you have a little bit of a tap dance going on here between the judge and the prosecutor – that the judge is in a sense, whether purposely or not, … putting a little bit of pressure on the prosecutor to indict," Dressler said.
The boy's killing on Nov. 22, 2014, followed other controversial deaths of black males at the hands of white police officers, including Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August and Eric Garner in New York City in July. Tamir's case became a rallying cry in a discussion about police use of force and the relationship between law enforcement and ethnic minority citizens.
Tamir was black, as is the judge. The officers are white.
Loehmann shot Tamir twice while responding to a call about someone waving a gun in a Cleveland neighborhood. The 911 caller told police that the person was probably a child and that the gun was probably fake, but that information was not relayed to the rookie officer.
But Loehmann's actions came under additional scrutiny in the weeks after the shooting, when it was revealed that he had been deemed unfit for duty by a previous police department because of poor performance. He had also reportedly shown signs of emotional instability during firearms training.
Although Thursday’s ruling may not change anything from a legal perspective, experts said the fact that a sitting judge found probable cause could influence grand jurors. Unlike trial jurors, grand jurors are not restricted from looking at media coverage of a case, so they could be influenced by Adrine’s decision.
"Maybe they would push back at a prosecutor a bit more – 'Why wouldn't we indict if a judge thinks there's probable cause?' It might have some impact," Dressler said.
Another law professor, Lewis Katz of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, praised Adrine for showing "tremendous courage."
"Judge Adrine is highly respected in all quarters. A lesser man would have found reason to delay and not act," Katz said in an email to The Times. The decision "will give tremendous hope to the family of Tamir Rice and most people here who hope for justice."
Katz expects the officers to be indicted. "I have confidence that the prosecutor, too, will do the right thing," he said.