Out of court

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Are the Police Getting More Violent?

The recent posting of the video of a police officer punching a 17 year old girl in the face revives this question. In that particular case, the officer was trying to control or handcuff another woman who allegedly jaywalked. The 17 year old intervened (even though you can see a male trying to pull her away from the confrontation) and began preventing the arrest of the other female. She was tussling with the officer when he punched her once in the face, which backed her off and allowed him to try to regain control of the person he wanted to arrest..

The first questions that come to my mind are: why was this patrol officer making a jaywalking arrest and couldn't he have used less force to gain control of the situation? Jaywalking is one of those offenses that officers can use to harass people or to see if they have warrants. On the other hand, this officer may always stop jaywalkers because it is an infraction. The fact is people should not openly break the law--even jaywalking--in front of police officers as it may challenge their authority. As to the force used, there may have been better ways to gain control of the situation, but most police officers do not tolerate disrepect or any disobedience. They will react to situtations that appear threatening to them, especially in light of all the violence directed toward the police lately..

Several other recent videos show police conduct that is far more violent and lawless. One was where the arrested man was cuffed and face down on the street and the police kicked and stomped him. He appeared helpless and the officer's insulting words involving Mexicans seemed to indicate an unlawful motive. The most egregious was the 15 year old girl who was beaten by an officer after she ostensibly disrespected him by lightly kicking her shoe at him. In these two cases the police clearly went over the line. Of course, years ago the Rodney King beating remains the most famous example of police violence. Do these instances reflect greater violence, or is it that more video cameras are just capturing what has always gone on? It's hard to say, but I have had plenty of clients tell me over the years about police violence..

Prosecutors have charged police with crimes in recent years for their excessive or unlawful use of force. In Everett, a police officer was tried for murder when a DUI suspect allegedly tried to leave the scene or run him over, depending on whose version was believed. The officer raised self defense and the jury acquitted him. Notably, the jury did not award him costs because they did not find by a preponderance of the evidence that he was using lawful force. Here in Seattle, the office who beat the 15 year old was tried for assault and also raised self defense. The first jury to hear that case hung. Reportedly, one juror held out against 11 others who voted to convict. That case will be re-tried. However, even where the video seems to prove the officer lost it and beat the girl, there are jurors who won't convict. But the mere fact that there have been several prosecutions lately makes me think that police violence could be on the uptick..

So returning to our 17 year old who was punched in the face, even if the officer used excessive force, what is to be done? To begin with, it will probably not be a defense to her potential charges of assault on the officer or for obstructing the arrest of the other woman. Generally, a person may use force to aid another in resisting an arrest by a police officer only if the person being arrested is in actual and imminent danger of serious injury from an officer's use of excessive force. The video does not show that the officer was using much force on the woman he was first trying to arrest. Similarly, a person being arrested has no right to resist even an unlawful arrest. They can only resist when there is actual and imminent danger of serious injury..

If a person is subject to an unlawful arrest, then the remedy is to sue the officer, not to resist the arrest. The 17 year old who was punched in the video may have a civil suit, although I doubt it will have much merit given that she had no right to intervene. On the other hand, the 15 year old who was beaten and the man face down on the street may have very good civil cases to pursue..

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