Crime, Law and Justice

Two sue MPD, Chauvin for kneeling on their necks years before George Floyd's murder

People sit at a table
Attorney Bob Bennett, center, appears at a news conference with his clients John Pope, at left, and Zoya Code, right in Minneapolis on May 31, 2022.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

Two people who allege that Derek Chauvin kneeled on their necks nearly three years before he killed George Floyd filed suit Tuesday against the former officer and the Minneapolis Police Department. In separate federal lawsuits, John Pope, 19, and Zoya Code, 39, who are both Black, claim that the white officer violated their civil rights by using excessive force.

Both incidents happened in 2017, and both started with calls to police about domestic disputes from the plaintiffs’ mothers.

On June 25 of that year, Zoya Code’s mother called 911 and said that Code had tried to choke her with an extension cord. Code has disputed this, telling the news organization the Marshall Project last year that her mother was swinging the cord, and she merely tried to grab it.

Two Minneapolis officers responded, Derek Chauvin and Ross Blair. Inside the house, they grabbed Code and handcuffed her. Chauvin wrenched Code’s handcuffed arms up behind her head and carried her outside that way, as Blair carried her feet. Chauvin then allegedly slammed Code’s head to the ground and kneeled on her neck for nearly five minutes. In Code’s civil complaint, her attorney included a photo of an officer holding her handcuffed hands straight up and behind her back.

In the second incident around two months later, John Pope’s mother called 911 over a domestic dispute involving phone chargers. Chauvin and Officer Alexander Walls responded. The officers spoke with Pope’s mother for nearly a half hour and had her fill out paperwork before going to Pope’s room. Pope was 14 years old at the time and did not resist arrest.

Chauvin struck Pope in the head with a flashlight multiple times before putting him in a chokehold, then pinned him to the floor for more than 15 minutes with his knee on Pope’s upper back and neck, according to the lawsuit.

Chauvin pleaded guilty in December to violating Pope’s civil rights. This was part of the same plea agreement in which he admitted violating George Floyd’s civil rights by using excessive force.

Attorney Bob Bennett, who represents Pope and Code, said he’s seen video of both incidents. He included still images in Code’s lawsuit. But Bennett said he was only able to view the footage from Pope’s encounter with Chauvin at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in part because Chauvin has not been sentenced in the federal criminal case.

“To anybody who watched the George Floyd murder, that seemed in and of itself incomprehensible,” Bennett said. “But if you look at the allegations of John Pope’s and Zoya Code’s lawsuits, it is not only incomprehensible, it is a pattern.”

While neither suffered long-lasting physical injuries, both say they’re still living with the psychological trauma. Pope — who was hospitalized — said at Tuesday’s news conference that he’d hoped that the Minneapolis Police Department would have disciplined Chauvin.

“When I was in the hospital, I told the supervisor, somebody that’s supposed to hold the officers accountable, that I didn’t feel safe riding with that officer, and that I feared for my life,” Pope said. “And he told me that it was out of his hands, that he couldn’t do nothing.”

And Code recalled a question that she asked Chauvin as he was arresting her.

“What happens the next time you do this? Are you just going to kill a Black man in the street like a dog? And that’s what happened. So we have a long road ahead of us. This is just the starting point,” Code said.

Without indicating how much he would be seeking on behalf of his clients, Bennett compared the cases to past lawsuits against the Minneapolis Police Department, including the $20 million he won on behalf of Justine Ruszczyk’s family after an officer fatally shot her in 2017.

In a statement, the Minneapolis city attorney’s office calls the incidents disturbing, and that they hope to negotiate a “reasonable settlement.”