Federal grand jury brings civil rights charges against ex-officers involved in Floyd's killing

A surveillance video showing police making an arrest outside a store.
In this image from Minneapolis city surveillance video that was shown during former officer Derek Chauvin's trial, police are seen attempting to take George Floyd into custody last May. A federal grand jury has indicted the former officers involved on charges that they violated Floyd's civil rights.
Screenshot of Court TV video

Updated: 4:02 p.m.

A federal grand jury has indicted former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin and the three other former officers involved in the killing of George Floyd last May on charges that the officers violated Floyd's civil rights.

The federal criminal charges are separate from state charges against Chauvin that culminated last month with a Hennepin County jury convicting him of murder and manslaughter. The other three officers are scheduled to go on trial in state court on charges of aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter in August.

Three of the officers made an initial appearance by virtual conference Friday morning before Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Cowan Wright. Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao appeared with their attorneys.

Four former Minneapolis police officers charged in George Floyd case.
From left: Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng,Thomas Lane and Tou Thao.
Hennepin County Sheriff's Office via AP

The complaint, unsealed Friday morning, argues that Chauvin and the other officers deprived Floyd of his constitutional right to be free from “an unreasonable seizure, which includes the right to be free from the use of unreasonable force by a police officer.”

The first count is against Chauvin alone for his role in holding Floyd on the ground with his knee on his neck for more than nine minutes.

The second count alleges that Kueng and Thao “willfully failed to intervene to stop Defendant Chauvin’s use of unreasonable force.”

The third count applies to all four former officers, including Lane, and argues that Floyd had the right “not to be deprived of liberty without due process of law, which includes an arrestee's right to be free from a police officer's deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs.”

In addition to Chauvin’s actions on the night of May 25 last year, a separate indictment charges Chauvin in connection with another case involving a 14-year-old boy who the officer allegedly knelt on for 17 minutes.

These types of federal civil rights charges, known as “deprivation of rights under the color of law,” are rare. According to data from Syracuse University, federal prosecutors brought such charges against on-duty law enforcement officers an average of 41 times per year over the past two decades. That’s a small percentage of the almost 200,000 federal cases prosecuted each year.

The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment on the charges.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said in a statement that the federal government is responsible for protecting Americans' civil rights and pursuing justice.

"Federal prosecution for the violation of George Floyd’s civil rights is entirely appropriate, particularly now that Derek Chauvin has been convicted of murder under Minnesota law for the death of George Floyd," said Ellison, whose office prosecuted the case in state court against Chauvin.

"The State is planning to present our case against the other three defendants to another jury in Hennepin County later this summer.”

Attorney Ben Crump, who represents Floyd’s family, praised the federal indictment Friday, saying it “reinforces the strength and wisdom” of the Constitution.

“The Constitution claims to be committed to life, liberty, and justice, and we are seeing this realized in the justice George Floyd continues to receive,” Crump said in a statement. “This comes after hundreds of years of American history in which Black Americans unfortunately did not receive equal justice.” 

Attorneys representing Chauvin, Thao, Kueng and Lane either couldn't be reached or declined to comment.

Boy called out ‘mom’

Prosecutors say body camera footage shows that in September of 2017, Chauvin and another officer responded to a domestic assault call where a mother alleged she was assaulted by her two children and wanted them out of the home. When Chauvin arrived, he found the 14-year-old son lying on the floor in his bedroom looking at his phone.

Chauvin and the other officer told him to stand up because he was under arrest. The boy refused and added that his mother was drunk and assaulted him.

Court documents say the child tried to talk with officers about his mother, but they yelled at him to stand up. The officers quickly grabbed him and Chauvin hit the child in the head with his flashlight. Two seconds later, Chauvin grabbed the boy’s throat and struck him again in the head with the flashlight.

“The child cried out that they were hurting him, and to stop, and called out ‘mom,’ ” according to documents. 

Chauvin applied a neck restraint, causing the child to temporarily pass out and fall to the ground. The officers placed him in the prone position and handcuffed him behind his back while his mother pleaded with the officers not to kill her son and told her son to stop resisting. 

“About a minute after going to the ground, the child began repeatedly telling the officers that he could not breathe, and his mother told Chauvin to take his knee off her son,” prosecutors wrote in a filing last year.

They added that the mother asked Chauvin to take his knee off her son four times because her son couldn’t breathe, but that Chauvin maintained his position and replied that her son, who Chauvin described as 6 feet, 2 inches tall and at least 240 pounds, was “a big guy.”

A federal grand jury indicted Chauvin on two counts of deprivation of civil rights under color of law in connection with that incident. 

“Specifically, Defendant Chauvin held his knee on the neck and the upper back of Juvenile 1 even after Juvenile 1 was lying prone, handcuffed, and unresisting,” the indictment states. “This offense resulted in bodily injury to Juvenile 1.”

Bob Bennett, an attorney who’s been involved in several police misconduct cases, said he is representing the teen, who is now legally an adult. Bennett argues the case shows that Chauvin engaged in a pattern of using unreasonable force against Black people — his client, he said, is African American — and that the Minneapolis Police Department failed to discipline him.

“It shows the pattern of Chauvin’s predator activity. He admits using a neck restraint in his police report — that’s a chokehold — and then he kneels on an unresisting, handcuffed, prone person,” Bennett said. “And it’s a 14-year-old boy, for God’s sake.”

Several details of that incident are similar to what happened with Floyd, except that it happened in a private home with no bystanders recording video. Bennett said his client was hospitalized due to injuries caused by Chauvin kneeling on him for 17 minutes — almost double the time he knelt on Floyd.

“That’s a long time to not know if you’re ever going to have the knee taken off your neck and back,” Bennett said. “It’s a profound and traumatic injury, that’s for sure.”

High stakes

In the federal case, federal prosecutors will need to prove that the defendants willfully deprived Floyd of his constitutional rights. 

Prosecutors aren't required to prove that the victim’s race was a factor in the defendant’s actions, said Rachel Paulose, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas and a former U.S. attorney for Minnesota.  

“The focus is on the defendant’s actions under ‘color of law’ — wearing a uniform, using his official authority, using weapons, using badges — to violate the rights of the victim,” Paulose said.

The provision being used by prosecutors has its roots in the period just after the Civil War, and was intended to ensure that Black citizens received equal protection under the law.

People put candles on a painting.
People lay candles on a painting of an angel where George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis on April 20.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

In the case of Rodney King, a Black man severely beaten by Los Angeles police officers in 1991, all four police officers involved were acquitted in state court, but two were found guilty in federal court. Paulose said the prosecution of the officers who beat King was a turning point for how the federal government used the provision. 

“This really has become a standard practice now in many parts of the country, where you’ll see state authorities working on a state case against an officer and at the same time, federal authorities look into possible civil rights violations,” Paulose said.

“What we see here is the federal government routinely overseeing these kinds of prosecutions where there’s a concern about local justice not actually being fair to people of color.”

Several police officers in Minnesota have faced deprivation of civil rights charges.

In 2019, a federal jury convicted former St. Paul police officer Brett Palkowitsch of violating the civil rights of Frank Baker. Baker, who is Black, was unarmed during the 2016 incident and had no connection to any crime when Palkowitsch kicked him as a police K-9 was mauling his leg.

Palkowitsch is set to be sentenced on May 21. Prosecutors are asking Judge Wilhelmina Wright to send the former officer to prison for more than seven years. His defense attorney is requesting probation. 

Last year, federal prosecutors filed charges against former Minneapolis police officer Ty Jindra, for allegedly “acquiring controlled substances by deception, extortion under color of official right, and deprivation of rights under color of law,” according to an announcement by former U.S. Attorney Erica MacDonald. Jindra is set to go on trial in October.

In 2016, a federal jury cleared Minneapolis police officer Michael Griffin of wrongdoing after prosecutors charged him with excessive force and cover-up related to a bar fight he was involved in while off duty and in plain clothes.

Three officers on trial in August 

While Chauvin was found guilty on three counts of murder and manslaughter last month in state court, the other three former officers at the scene of Floyd’s death are set to go on trial in August on charges of aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter. 

The federal charges are unrelated to the state charges. But the federal charges could be used to pressure the other three defendants to take plea deals. Paulose said the defendants face the challenging prospect of going into one trial, while another has already been resolved. 

“It would make sense, you could see from the defendants’ perspective, to be able to resolve all charges in a global plea deal,” Paulose said.

The New York Times reported in February that federal and county prosecutors had negotiated a plea deal until then-Attorney General Bill Barr scuttled the deal because he feared the community would see it as too lenient.

All four defendants were originally scheduled to go on trial at the same time, but Hennepin County District Court Judge Peter Cahill separated them into two trials due to COVID-19 restrictions on space in the courtroom. 

The August trial will require prosecutors to call all the witnesses once again, including very young bystanders who testified to the ongoing trauma they felt after they witnessed Floyd’s killing. 

The U.S. Department of Justice is also conducting a separate investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department, which was spurred by Floyd’s killing. That investigation will look into department policy and practices for evidence of unlawful policing, and will likely lead to changes to the department through a court-enforced consent decree with the city.

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