The opening debate began on Monday in the case of three former police officers who were involved in the arrest of George Floyd when he was killed by fellow officer Derek Chauvin in June 2020.
WATCH: What role did the other three police officers play in the killing of George Floyd?
Unlike the criminal case that resulted in Chauvin being convicted of murder in state court last year, the trial of the three officers — Tou Tao, Thomas Lane, and J. Alexander Quang — is a federal civil rights case and will in many ways be more complex. because prosecutors have to prove that the officers had an obligation to prevent Floyd’s death or provide medical care, and deliberately did not. It may also affect how police officers should intervene in future cases of police misconduct or brutality.
What are federal civil rights fees?
In this lawsuit, Tao, Lane, and Kueng face federal civil rights charges. These are criminal charges and the trio could face life in prison if found guilty. Unlike charges such as murder or assault—cases that most people understand as crimes—these charges are brought by the federal government, which oversees civil rights crimes. Chauvin has already pleaded guilty to one federal charge of willfully depriving Floyd of his right to freedom from arbitrary arrest.
Unlike the state trial of Chauvin, who was found to have killed Floyd by kneeling on his neck, Tao, Lane and Kueng are charged with inaction, said Rachel Moran, an assistant professor of law at St. Thomas University in Minneapolis.
“This trial is about what officers didn’t do while Derek Chauvin was killing George Floyd. They did not intervene and did not provide medical assistance,” Moran said.
Each officer is charged with willfully depriving Floyd of medical care, and Tao and Kueng are charged with the additional charge of depriving Floyd of his right to be free from unwarranted capture because he did not intervene when Chauvin knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes.
It is not yet clear why Lane, now in his fourth day with the Minneapolis police, was not charged with a second crime, but the video shows him asking Chauvin twice if they should win over Floyd to his side.
What can we expect from the court?
Both prosecutors and the defense have reason to refer to Chauvin during the trial, Angie Porter of Georgetown University Law Center told PBS NewsHour. Lawyers for the cops might say they were under Chauvin and point out that he was a field training officer, she added.
At the same time, prosecutors will also use Chauvin’s statement in his federal case.
“As part of his statement, [Chauvin] said that he did not force the other three to do or do nothing. So [the defense is] you have to fight it,” Porter said.
Prosecutors should remove the bar proving officers’ inaction directly led to Floyd’s death. Moran said the prosecution would likely point to the same testimony as in Chauvin’s trial and argue that Floyd needed medical attention.
There is also the possibility that as part of each officer’s defense, Tao, Lane and Kueng may try to blame each other for being more responsible for Floyd’s death, Moran said.
“They can point fingers at each other a little. Tou Tao was a crowd control man. He’s going to say, “I turned away, I didn’t participate, I’m not responsible.” So he could even point his finger at Kuang and Lane and say, “This has nothing to do with me.” For example, even if all three were involved, I am not,” Moran said.
The federal lawsuit is unlikely to be the end of Tao, Lane and Kuang’s lawsuits over Floyd’s death. They were also charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter by the state of Minnesota, a trial that was delayed until June.
Why is the federal government involved in this?
Federal prosecutors have not publicly explained why they made the allegations, Moran said. But it is true that an additional trial means more chances for a conviction. All four officers were charged with crimes by the state of Minnesota, but if, for example, Chauvin were acquitted of these charges, he would still have to face federal criminal charges against him. The same goes for Tao, Lane and Kuang.
“There is no doubt that the policies of the current federal administration influence the types of cases that are investigated,” said Georgetown Law Professor at the Practice Christy Lopez.
Moran said the politics of the case and the ruling party can also influence federal civil rights charges, including whether police will be charged in each case.
“It really depends on the administration and how they staff their civil rights departments, or how they put political pressure on local U.S. attorneys,” she said. “In the Trump era, we didn’t see anything like this at all. It’s too early for the Biden administration to know about this.”
Another reason for the federal government’s involvement is that these allegations involve the Department of Justice, which is empowered to prosecute crimes that affect people’s constitutional civil rights. This includes George Floyd’s right not to use excessive force on him and his right to medical attention from the police when he needs it.
Despite this, the trial of Tao, Lane and Kuang is unusual because the federal government rarely brings civil rights charges against police officers in court, Moran said.
She said the last time the Justice Department had a civil rights trial was that of Michael Slager, a white police officer who pleaded guilty in 2015 to federal civil rights charges for shooting black motorist Walter five times in the back. Scott. In 2017, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Another notable example is the case of Rodney King, who was beaten by four Los Angeles police officers in 1992. In a case brought by the federal government, two officers, including a sergeant, were charged and ultimately pleaded guilty to violating King’s civil rights. They served 30 months in prison.
Lopez said it’s even rarer for junior officers to be prosecuted for civil rights violations without intervening when a superior officer commits a crime. Lopez said this is the first such case she is aware of.
What precedent does this set for the police?
Depending on the outcome of the case, Lopez said there could be major implications for how police officers should intervene when another officer violates human rights.
“It really sends a signal that you can be held accountable in the harshest form of accountability we have in our society – criminal liability, not civil liability, not civil liability. [internal affairs] investigation, criminal liability – not only for committing an offense on your own or abusing someone’s rights, but also for failing to keep another employee from this, ”said Lopez.
“It’s actually a big message, an important message, and it’s a new message. It has never—literally never—been spoken of at this level when talking about equal officers or superior officers. So I actually think that this particular trial could have a wider impact, much more than most police trials.”
The test could also spur police departments to expand their witness training programs and motivate them to reward officers who intervene when they see police misconduct, Lopez said. It also comes at a time when the nation is in the midst of a reckoning for race and police brutality, largely caused by the killing of George Floyd.
But it’s still too early to tell if this lawsuit signals a permanent change in police prosecutions, Lopez said, or if George Floyd’s death was “an extraordinary event.”
“Which of those two directions it will take may depend on the outcome of this particular trial,” she said. “If they get convictions here, then I think it will increase the likelihood that they will initiate similar lawsuits in the future. If they don’t, it only highlights how difficult they are.”