As attorneys argued over whether to allow evidence from George Floyd’s 2019 arrest at the trial of a former police officer charged in his death in 2020, Judge Peter Cahill wanted to know the relevance of Floyd’s behavior a year before he died.
Weren’t Derek Chauvin and other officers “duty bound to deal with the arrestee as they find them?” Cahill asked.
Legal and criminal justice experts say Cahill was expressing a longstanding concept that police officers are required to protect not only themselves and the public, but the person they are arresting. That duty could be key at the trial that starts with opening statements Monday, especially as the defense asserts that Floyd’s swallowing of pills contributed to his death.
WHAT IS AN OFFICER’S DUTY?
“You always want to keep in mind what our motto is and that is to protect and serve the public. That includes the arrestee,” said Mylan Masson, who once headed police training at Hennepin Technical College and served on the Minnesota Police Officers Standards and Training Board for more than 20 years.
The Minneapolis Police Department sought to train its officers to minimize violence in the years before Floyd died. In 2016, the department rewrote its use of force policy to emphasize the “sanctity of life,” and began training officers in de-escalation — calming people down to prevent violence.
“The point of this new use of force policy was to communicate to officers to not do exactly what Chauvin did,” said Alex Vitale, a Brooklyn College sociology professor who has argued for sweeping criminal justice reform. Floyd’s death indicates the 2016 reforms in Minneapolis didn’t work, he said.
WHAT IS REASONABLE FORCE?
Officers are allowed to use deadly force when someone puts the officer or other people in danger. Legal experts say a key question for the jury will be whether it was reasonable for Chauvin to press his knee to Floyd’s neck to pin him to the ground — face down and in handcuffs — after Floyd resisted being put in a squad car.
In police body camera footage from last year, Floyd appears distraught from the moment officers ask him to step out of his vehicle near a south Minneapolis corner grocery, where he was suspected of passing a counterfeit $20 bill. Floyd’s hands are soon handcuffed behind his back, and he grows increasingly anxious, telling the officers that he is claustrophobic and pleading not to be put in the squad car.
There is a struggle. The officers get Floyd to the ground and hold him there.
The officers sound clinical as the minutes tick by.
“I think he’s passing out,” one says.
Officer Thomas Lane twice asks Chauvin whether they should roll Floyd on his side, while bystanders shout at the officers, expressing fear for Floyd’s condition, asking whether he has a pulse and whether he is breathing.
The officers show no apparent urgency as one of them, J. Kueng, checks for a pulse and says he cannot find one.
Floyd was later declared dead at a hospital.
“Given the facts, given the situation, what would a reasonable officer have thought or surmised in that situation?” said David Schultz, a law professor at the University of Minnesota and Hamline University. “The jury has to decide, given all that, did Chauvin act in such a way that he exceeded his authorization under state law.”
WHAT CAUSED FLOYD’S DEATH?
Defense attorney Eric Nelson has repeatedly sought to use evidence from the 2019 arrest, when Floyd swallowed drugs and a paramedic told him he had dangerously high blood pressure. Nelson argued that striking similarities in the two arrests justified the jury hearing about the earlier one.
The judge ultimately decided to allow some evidence from that arrest, though he limited it to information possibly pertaining to the cause of death and excluded Floyd’s “emotional behavior,” such as calling out to his mother, which he did in both incidents.
Ted Sampsell-Jones, a law professor at Mitchell Hamline Law School, noted that Minnesota’s “common plan” doctrine allows lawyers to outline comparable behaviors to demonstrate a pattern.
“This is being admitted to show similar behavior, namely that Floyd attempted to conceal drugs by ingesting them as he was being arrested, and that he almost had a heart attack as a result,” Sampsell-Jones said, referring to Floyd’s 2019 arrest.
Legal experts said Chauvin’s defense team will surely bring in expert witnesses who will point to the fentanyl found in Floyd’s body during an autopsy as a contributing factor in his death.
Prosecutors argued that the admission of the 2019 arrest would allow the defense lawyer to smear Floyd for using drugs to excuse his client’s actions, but Cahill said he would stop the defense “very quickly” from suggesting at trial that Floyd didn’t deserve sympathy.
Floyd also had severe heart disease, but legal experts say there is a legal doctrine — known as the “eggshell skull rule” — that just because a person who commits wrongdoing is in a fragile state of health, it doesn’t excuse another from liability for causing them injury. Though the principle applies to personal injury lawsuits, legal experts said it may also weigh on the case and how the judge instructs the jury to view Floyd’s health and drug use.
“The jury will have to decide — listening to dueling autopsy reviews — what was the cause of death?” Schultz said.
Find AP’s full coverage of the death of George Floyd at: https://apnews.com/hub/death-of-george-floyd