Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Federal Charges in the Kelly Thomas Case?

Outrage abounds over the not-guilty verdict in the trial of two California police officers charged with beating to death a homeless, mentally ill man. 

Then-officers Manual Ramos and Jay Cicinelli stopped Kelly Thomas at the Fullerton bus depot on a July night in 2011; they were following up on a report of someone trying to break into nearby vehicles. A surveillance camera captured the encounter, which culminated in the vicious drubbing of the 37-year-old Thomas. (For those so inclined, the video is available here.) 

With Monday’s verdict, jurors in the notoriously conservative Orange County cleared Ramos of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter, and Cicinelli of involuntary manslaughter and use of excessive force.

Cops Caught on Tape—Again

Though it doesn’t share the racial element of the 1991 Rodney King beating, the Thomas encounter bears other similarities: stunning police violence (one officer reportedly said to Thomas, “See these fists? They’re getting ready to f--- you up”), video evidence, and a jury’s acquittal. Authorities are set to determine whether the beatings will have in common yet another ingredient: federal prosecution.

The FBI announced Monday that it would evaluate the trial evidence to determine whether to resuscitate an investigation into the Kelly Thomas incident that it initiated in 2011. Similarly, in 1992, the federal government considered whether to prosecute the Rodney King officers, ultimately deciding in the affirmative: After a Simi Valley jury acquitted the four officers in question (the jury actually hung in favor of acquittal on a single charge), a federal grand jury indicted them. Another jury—this one federal—would later convict two of the four for civil rights violations.

Double Jeopardy?

A federal prosecution after a failed or even successful pursuit by the state government doesn’t implicate the prohibition against double jeopardy. The Double Jeopardy clause protects against:
  • a prosecution for the same offense after an acquittal
  • a prosecution for the same offense after a conviction, and
  • more than one punishment for the same offense.
It doesn’t prevent one “sovereign” (in this case, the federal government) from prosecuting a defendant for a particular course of events after another (here, the state of California) has failed.

Talk of federal civil rights prosecution after a state government’s defeat at trial isn’t uncommon. There was clamor for federal charges after last summer’s acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin killing. But Thomas’s case differs from Martin’s—and aligns with King’s—in that involves defendants who are police officers rather than civilians.

Federal Rights

The federal government might have decided not to go after Zimmerman because it would have had to prove essentially that the neighborhood watch volunteer intentionally killed Martin out of racial animus. But where the Fullerton officers are concerned, a federal prosecution would succeed by establishing that the officers, acting as government agents, intentionally deprived Thomas of his rights under the U.S. Constitution or any other federal law. (18 U.S.C.A. § 242.) One such right is to be free from the use of unreasonable force. (United States v. Dean, 722 F.2d 925 (5th Cir. 1983).)

Though it’s always precarious to judge a case from the outside looking in, it’s difficult to imagine how the Fullerton officers’ force could be considered reasonable.