The federal civil rights trial against three Minneapolis Police officers that did nothing while fellow officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd's neck for 9 1/2 minutes began today. Officers Tou Thao, Thomas Lane, and J. Alexander Kueng are accused of depriving George Floyd of his constitutional rights under color of law. Officers Thao and Kueng are accused of failing to intervene when Chauvin's knee was on Floyd's neck, but Lane is not facing that charge. All three of them are charged with failing to provide Floyd with medical assistance which he was legally entitled to. Prosecutors face an uphill battle because Chauvin has already been convicted of the murder, so they have to prove that what the others did not do rose to the level of a criminal offense. It often is not enough to simply prove that someone failed to act because criminal intent must also be proven. Criminal intent requires that specific intent to violate Floyd's civil rights be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
Failure to Intervene
Officers Thao and Kueng both engaged in activities that substantially assisted Chauvin while his knee was on Floyd's neck. Kueng actively held Floyd's legs. Thao was actively stopping people on the sidewalk from intervening. The need to intervene should have been apparent to both of them long before Floyd took his final breath. We are not sure exactly how long someone must kneel on another's neck for the danger of death to become obvious to a reasonable officer in their shoes. It could be as little as 2 minutes, but probably not more than 4 or 5 and certainly not 9 1/2. Whatever the cutoff point is we are certain that Chauvin had his knee on Floyd's neck a lot longer, so these two officers will have difficulty claiming they didn't realize anything was wrong. The question then turns to their intent.
We know that Thao and Kueng failed to intervene, but we don't know why. For all we know they may have wanted Chauvin to kill Floyd or their brains farted simultaneously leading to a mutually innocent failure of thought. Prosecutors have the burden of proving that they willfully violated Floyd's right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment by failing to intervene (see https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/policing/2022/01/20/george-floyd-trial-minneapolis-officers/6585449001/). A person's conduct can be called "willful" if it it constitutes "open defiance or in reckless disregard of a constitutional requirement." We believe that Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd's neck long enough for the danger to become apparent to any reasonable officer in their shoes at which point the decision not to intervene could only be made with at best a reckless disregard of the constitutional requirement to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.
Thomas Lane is not charged with failing to intervene. Lane does not appear to have actively assisted Chauvin in ways that the others did. Lane also tried to intervene by urging Chauvin to move Floyd, but Chauvin shot him down. Lane was also a rookie. If any of these three officers deserve any leniency it would be Lane due to him being the lowest ranking officer on the scene and actually trying to do something after every other officer did nothing at all.
Failure to Provide Medical Care
All three officers are charged with willfully depriving Floyd of liberty without due process by failing to provide medical care. The defense is likely to argue that their clients only had 9 1/2 minutes to make up their minds and that they eventually called for an ambulance. We think it might be difficult for prosecutors to prove criminal intent with regards to failing to call for help. We think that Floyd's fate was sealed before 9 1/2 minutes had passed and calling an ambulance after that would not have likely changed the outcome.
We hope that these officers are held accountable to the fullest extent allowed by law. Unfortunately, the fullest extent allowed by law in this case does not appear good enough to get George Floyd real justice. We fear that even if these three are not acquitted that their sentences will be so short that the Floyd family will feel the sting of getting slapped in the face far longer than these officers experience consequences for their actions.
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