Two federal excessive force lawsuits filed last week accuse Derek Chauvin and other Minneapolis Police officers of violating the rights of two Black Minnesotans in separate 2017 incidents.
In both incidents, Chauvin is alleged to have used his “signature move” — the knee-on-neck maneuver he used in George Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020, for which he was charged and convicted of murder.
Despite renewed attention on the pair of 2017 incidents, experts say Chauvin and other officers involved are unlikely to face state charges for them.
In one case, Chauvin is alleged to have held then-14-year-old John Pope in the prone position for 15 minutes and kneeled on his neck after police responded to a domestic assault call at his mother’s house. According to the lawsuit, Pope’s mother was angry with Pope and his sister for leaving phone chargers plugged in when not in use. After she took the chargers away, she claimed Pope grabbed her from behind. She did not tell officers she had been injured, but filled out domestic assault paperwork after they arrived, and told officers she wanted Pope and his sister removed from the house.
The lawsuit says Pope was in his bedroom on his phone when officers entered, hit him on the head with a flashlight and put him in a chokehold, then kneeled on his neck. The lawsuit alleges six other officers failed to intervene.
The other lawsuit, filed on behalf of Zoya Code, accuses Chauvin of kneeling on her neck while another officer participated and failed to intervene. The Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) had been called to her mother’s house in South Minneapolis for a domestic dispute. Code’s mother alleged her daughter was trying to strangle her with an extension cord.
The lawsuit alleges the officers handcuffed Code behind her back. She refused to stand up and they carried her outside, where Chauvin allegedly slammed her head on the ground and then kneeled on her neck for nearly five minutes.
The civil lawsuits seek unspecified damages against the officers and the city for violating Code and Zoya’s civil rights, making both “unfortunate victims of Defendant Chauvin’s racist policing and unchecked use of excessive force.”
The lawsuits allege MPD was aware of the incidents and failed to discipline the officers, and that had the officers been disciplined, “history could have been stopped from repeating itself with George Floyd.”
Last year, Chauvin was convicted of murdering Floyd in state court. He pleaded guilty to federal civil rights charges of violating the rights of Floyd and Pope.
Statute of limitations
Rachel Moran, an associate professor and founder of the Criminal and Juvenile Defense Clinic at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, said it is likely the Hennepin County Attorney’s office — the jurisdiction with the authority to charge in the case — was aware of the MPD’s interaction, at least in the Pope case, after it happened.
The fact that Pope was briefly charged in juvenile court, with fifth-degree domestic assault and obstructing legal process with force, means the county knew something of the case. The charges were dropped.
“They had to have had some information, and they probably had access to the body camera, whether or not they watched it, I have no idea,” she said.
If the state had pursued charges against Chauvin in these two cases, they would likely be along the lines of felony assault charges, Moran said.
It wouldn’t be totally unheard of to see such charges, but it is extremely rare. “It’s very rare for police officers to get charged with any crimes, particularly things like assault,” Moran said.
Moreover, with Chauvin convicted on more serious charges — specifically, the murder of Floyd – it’s unlikely the state would bother with lesser charges, although they could be brought up in sentencing for other convictions, Moran said.
“To some extent, (prosecutors are) making judgment calls about where to spend their time, just like any lawyers are,” Moran said.
When asked about potential charges in these incidents, Max Page, assistant Hennepin County Attorney, said the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office has no comment at this time.
At this point, though, there could be barriers to filing charges. The statute of limitations for most criminal charges, including assault, is three years, Moran said. There are some exceptions, such as in cases of murder, kidnapping, arson and criminal sexual conduct, but none of those would apply here.
Though the statute of limitations would not have been expired as of May 25, 2022, when Floyd was murdered (the Code incident happened June 25, 2017 and the Pope incdient happened Sept. 4, 2017), it probably has by now.
“I would say the statute of limitations has expired,” Moran said.
Given all that, Moran said she wouldn’t hold her breath on state charges in these cases. Though she said we can learn another lesson from them.
“To me, the bigger story here is look at this example of how, had the state been more proactive about caring about police misconduct, they could have done something a long time ago and they didn’t. So to me, these are examples of just lack of accountability and wasted opportunity,” she said.
There could potentially be exceptions argued based on that the plaintiffs in these cases, according to the Star Tribune, didn’t know it was Chauvin involved until after Chauvin killed George Floyd, said T. Anansi Wilson, associate professor of law and the founding director of the Center for Study of Black Life and the Law at Mitchell Hamline School of Law: in some states, the clock on the statute of limitations starts when a person knows a crime has been committed against them.
Wilson said one takeaway from both of these cases is that it’s critical to make sure officers identify themselves in police interactions.
“It feels scary to do, it feels uncomfortable to do: ask for the officer’s name, ask for their badge number, ask for their card, no matter how bad the encounter you are in is, because that’s how you get accountability,” Wilson said.
Wilson said many past clients have had bad interactions with police but doesn’t know the officer’s name or other identifying information.
“I believe you because you have a bruise on your face. There’s evidence here, but we don’t know who the hell did it, right?. And you go to the police station, and you know, it’s kind of a black box,” said Wilson. “No one wants to talk to you about it. People don’t want to investigate their colleagues.”