Crime, Law and Justice

What civil rights charges connected to Floyd's death could mean

A man speaks behind a podium.
Merrick Garland delivers remarks after being nominated to be U.S. attorney general by President Joe Biden at The Queen Theater in Wilmington, Del.
Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images file

A federal grand jury could soon hand down civil rights charges against the four former Minneapolis police officers involved in George Floyd's death. The civil rights violations would be on top of the state criminal charges the officers face.

According to The Star Tribune, prosecutors want to indict Derek Chauvin not only for pinning George Floyd by his neck, but also in connection with the arrest of a 14-year-old boy in 2017. In that case, Chauvin allegedly hit the teen on the head with his flashlight, grabbed him by the throat and hit him again. The other officers would face civil rights charges only in George Floyd's death. There's been no comment on this from the U.S. Attorney's Office.

MPR News host Cathy Wurzer talked to John Marti, former acting U.S. attorney and longtime federal prosecutor. He's now at Dorsey and Whitney.

The following is a lightly edited transcript of the discussion. Use the audio player above to hear the full conversation.

If the grand jury does indict the four officers, what does that mean?

Well, parallel federal civil rights prosecutions aren’t unusual. And they're brought to vindicate the unique federal interest in protecting the civil rights of its citizens. The case that the state brought was focused on the murder and the police misconduct. The department has a broader view, and I think you've seen recently with the department announcing its pattern and practice investigation and vindicating civil rights across the country.

So we're looking at potentially another round of trials?

Yes, we are. Certainly, when there's a second indictment of the defendants, and now they have to face state and now federal charges, it creates immense leverage on the defendants and their counsel in trying to resolve these matters. But the nature of this case, there's little to lose for Derek Chauvin proceeding to trial on a federal case and certainly with the cases against the other three defendants, there would be little to lose for them proceeding as well.

I'm curious, when it comes to civil rights violations, what kind of penalties could these charges hold? What do they carry?

When you have a civil rights violation by a police officer that results in the death of a citizen, the max authorized penalty under law, theoretically, is the death penalty. So it's not just getting the approval of Department of Justice to bring the civil rights charges.

There may be that the department and these defendants are going to have to deal with the Department of Justice's capital review processes as well. It's unlikely that the Attorney General, who would have to authorize a prosecution seeking the death penalty, would authorize such in this case. But under the law, it's authorized.

Derek Chauvin obviously has already been convicted of murder and manslaughter in George Floyd's death. We know that. Is it unusual to face civil charges in this 2017 case?

No. And in fact, I can understand why the department would be interested in those charges because they're looking not just at the events of George Floyd's death. I think they've identified Derek Chauvin as being a problematic officer, and they want to hold him accountable for his behavior going back in time, so it's not unusual.

What will be interesting to see is if the department pursues charges against all four defendants, and then adds in separate charges related to the prior incident — how the court is going to handle that. Judge Pete Cahill severed charges, allowing Cahill to go forward separately. Whichever federal judge picks up this case is going to have similar motions brought to them and is going to have to resolve whether he deals with this all in one trial, or splits defendants.

The Department of Justice has been making a lot of news of late. There are the federal charges in Ahmaud Arbery’s death, the DOJ is looking into the practices of the Minneapolis police department, the Louisville police department. What does the stepped-up action say to you?

A change in presidential administration, a change in Attorney General. Under the Trump administration, there was significant resources that were diverted from the Civil Rights Division, and there wasn’t an emphasis on pursuing civil rights violations by the Department of Justice. Elections matter.

And President Biden and now Attorney General Garland — it's clear to me that they've made this an important part of trying to bring the Department of Justice back to its long, storied history of defending civil rights here of the citizens of the United States.

Use the audio player above to hear the full conversation.