Robbins: Excessive force and the Derek Chauvin trial
The Derek Chauvin trial has recently been aboil in Minneapolis and has gripped the nation with its tragic drama. What you likely know is at stake is whether the Minneapolis police officer charged with George Floyd’s death will be held accountable.
Ten months after George Floyd’s sad demise, which led to a national paroxysm of protest and upheaval, Officer Chauvin, a white 19-year veteran of the department, who pressed his knee into a handcuffed Floyd’s neck for nearly 10 minutes even as Floyd cried out repeatedly for help and said he couldn’t breathe, now has his own neck on the line. What is at stake is justice and whether Chauvin will be convicted of the charge or murder.
A trial is the intersection of both facts and law. The applicable law is the milieu within which the applicable facts must be considered. Key to the Chauvin trial is the issue of what constitutes excessive force and, in particular, what force may be considered too much when at the hands of law enforcement officers.
A guiding light shined on the question of how much force is too much in the case of Graham v. Connor, a 1989 Supreme Court case. Before we get to the particulars however, it is key to understand that there are two kinds of law: statutory law — law enacted by the legislature — and common law — the law developed over time by prior court decisions. Common law is the law of precedent and, as the United States Supreme Court is the highest court in the land, prior decisions of the Supreme Court bear special precedential weight.
The Graham case ruled on how police officers should approach investigatory stops and the use of force during an arrest.
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The facts of Graham were these; Dethorne Graham was a diabetic. Suffering from his illness, he rushed into a convenience store to buy orange juice to help counteract an insulin reaction. Quickly realizing that the line was too long for him to wait, he abruptly left the store without purchasing anything and returned to his friend’s car. A local police officer, Connor, witnessed Graham quickly entering and exiting the convenience store and found the behavior odd.
Connor made an investigative stop, asking Graham and his friend to remain in the car until he could confirm their version of events. Other officers arrived on the scene as backup and handcuffed Graham. He was released after the officer confirmed that nothing had occurred within the convenience store, but significant time had passed and the backup officers had refused him treatment for his diabetic condition. Graham also sustained multiple injuries while handcuffed.
Graham filed suit, alleging that Connor had “used excessive force in making the investigatory stop, in violation of ‘rights secured to him under the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution.’” Under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, a jury found that the officers had not used excessive force. On appeal, the panel of judges could not decide whether a case of excessive use of force should be ruled based on the 4th Amendment (the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizure) or 14th (which affords due process and equal protection under the law). The majority ruled based on the 14th Amendment.
The case was ultimately taken to the Supreme Court. When it arrived at the court, it became more complicated. The issue present to the Court was this: How should claims of excessive use of force be handled in court? Should they be analyzed under the Fourth, Eighth (the prohibition against cruel or unusual punishment), or 14th Amendment?
Graham’s attorneys argued that the officer’s actions violated both the 4th Amendment and the due process clause of the 14th. The stop and search itself, they argued, were unreasonable because the officer lacked sufficient probable cause to stop Graham in the first place. What’s more, they contended, the excessive use of force violated the due process clause because an agent of the government had deprived Graham of liberty without just cause.
The attorneys representing Connor argued simply and predictably that there was no use of excessive force.
In a unanimous decision, the court found that excessive use of force claims against police officers should be analyzed under the 4th Amendment. They wrote that any such analysis should take into account the “reasonableness” of the search and seizure. To determine if an officer used excessive force, the court must decide how another “objectively reasonable” police officer in the same situation would have acted. The officer’s intent or motivation should be irrelevant.
In the last analysis, what does the Graham case stand for?
It is this: Excessive use of force claims must be evaluated under the “objectively reasonable” standard of the 4th Amendment. This standard requires courts to consider the facts and circumstances surrounding an officer’s use of force rather than the intent or motivation of an officer during that use of force.
How will this play out in the Derek Chauvin case?
Time and the jury will tell.
But if I were a betting man, I’d place my odds on justice for George Floyd.