Four former Minneapolis officers who participated in the arrest and death of George Floyd were charged by a federal grand jury, accused of knowingly and willingly violating the constitutional rights of the Black man as he was restrained face-down on the ground, gasping for air.
On Friday, Derek Chauvin, Thomas Lane, J. Kueng, and Tou Thao were named in a three-count indictment.
Chauvin is accused of infringing on Floyd’s freedom to be free from unlawful seizure and excessive force by a police officer. Floyd’s right to be free from an arbitrary seizure was also violated: Thao and Kueng say they did not intervene to stop Chauvin as he knelt on Floyd’s neck. The failure to provide Floyd with medical attention has been levied against all four officers.
In 2017, Chauvin was indicted in a second indictment for the apprehension and neck restraint of a 14-year-old child.
Lane, Thao, and Kueng appeared in court for the first time via videoconference in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis. Chauvin did not make an appearance in court.
Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter on state charges in Floyd’s death last month and is currently being held in Minnesota’s only maximum-security prison awaiting sentencing. The remaining three retired officers are free on parole and will face a state trial in August. After appearing in federal court on Friday, they were permitted to remain free.
Floyd died on May 25 after Chauvin held him to the ground with a knee on his neck, despite Floyd’s repeated claims that he couldn’t breathe when handcuffed. Kueng and Lane both assisted in Floyd’s restraint, according to state prosecutors. Kueng knelt on Floyd’s back, and Lane kept Floyd’s legs down. According to state prosecutors, Thao pushed bystanders back and prevented them from interfering during the 9 1/2-minute hold.
At Chauvin’s murder trial, his counsel, Eric Nelson, argued that Chauvin acted fairly in the situation and that Floyd died due to ongoing health problems and drug use. He has requested a new trial, citing several concerns, including the judge’s reluctance to move the trial due to the media attention.
Prosecutors must conclude that an officer behaved under the “color of law,” or government authority, and willfully violated someone’s civil rights, such as the right to be free from arbitrary searches or the use of unreasonable force, to bring federal charges in deaths involving cops. That’s a high legal bar to clear; an accident, a lapse of judgment, or plain incompetence on the officer’s part won’t suffice to justify federal charges.
According to Roy Austin, a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division who tried such cases., prosecutors must show that the officers knew what they were doing was wrong at the time but did it anyway.
Conviction on a federal civil rights charge carries a sentence of up to life in prison or the death penalty, although such harsh penalties are uncommon, and federal sentencing guidelines depend on complex calculations that mean the officers will receive much less if convicted.
According to Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor, and professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, if the federal court uses second-degree murder as the underlying crime in Chauvin’s case, he may face anywhere from 14 to slightly more than 24 years in prison, depending on whether he accepts guilt.
The rules explicitly state that every federal sentence will be served concurrently with a state sentence and that the sentences will not stack.