Monday, July 18, 2016

Judge Madeline Haikala's botched decision to throw out criminal charges against Alabama police officer shows cops often receive favorable treatment in court

Sureshbhai Patel
(Second post in a series)

The ambush killings yesterday of three police officers in Baton Rough, Louisiana, has placed such hot-button status on issues related to police brutality that they threaten to relegate this week's Republican National Convention to back pages of the nation's newspapers.

Top officials seem to be in a state of shock and confusion, with even normally articulate President Barack Obama seemingly at a loss for meaningful words.

This much seems certain: Gunman Gavin Long did a disservice to Americans who would like to see a serious and extensive examination of dozens of high-profile police brutality cases that have erupted around the country since a white police officer shot a young black man named Michael Brown at Ferguson, Missouri, in summer 2014.

Since Long opened fire yesterday morning, numerous public officials have stepped forward to make statements along the lines of, "This must stop. Violence against police officers cuts at the fabric of our society."

That is an understandable response. But it's as if the other side of the equation -- the documented (often on videotape) mayhem law-enforcement officers have heaped on citizens -- has been largely, and hopefully temporarily forgotten.

In our first post in this series, we showed that officers enjoy a distinct advantage in any physical encounter with a citizen. In a new study at Think Progress, statistics for 2015 show that 97 percent of officers in police-violence cases never face criminal charges. In the rare instance where an officer does face criminal charges, juries and judges are likely to cut him an extraordinary amount of slack.

We had such a case earlier this year in Alabamian, which left Sureshbhai Patel (a grandfather from India, who was visiting his son, daugther-in-law, and new grandchild in the Huntsville suburb of Madison) partially paralyzed.

A Legal Schnauzer analysis shows that Haikala abused the law--and the public trust--when she threw out criminal charges against Alabama police officer Eric Parker in the Patel case?

That abuse becomes worse when you understand that Haikala's ruling cannot be appealed, due to fairly complex case law related to the United State's Double Jeopardy Clause.

That means Eric Parker, who has been fired as a police officer, is home free on federal criminal charges, and Attorney General Luther Strange dropped state misdemeanor assault charges against him in May; Parker still faces a lawsuit and perhaps substantial civil liability.

The government would have had multiple grounds for seeking to have Haikala's ruling, granting the defense's Motion for Judgment of Acquittal, overturned. The strongest ground might have been this: The trial judge repeatedly misapplied the standard for reviewing the defense's motion to acquit Parker.

Haikala, however, never will be held accountable for her abuse of the law because to allow an appeal from the prosecution would violate case law that protects Parker (and other defendants) from double jeopardy--multiple trials for the same offense.

Before we turn to the double-jeopardy issue, let's consider the quality (or lack thereof) of Haikala's ruling. At the beginning of her 92-page ruling, Haikala appears to know what she is doing. (See full ruling at the end of this post.) She cites the correct standard for review of a Motion to Acquit, as follows:

When considering a motion for the entry of a judgment of acquittal, “a district court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the government, and determine whether a reasonable jury could have found the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The prosecution need not rebut all reasonable hypotheses other than guilt. United States v. Miranda, 425 F.3d 953, 959 (11th Cir. 2005)

In layman's terms, that means all close calls should be decided in favor of the non-moving party, which would be the prosecution in the Patel case. We should note that, in Miranda, the Eleventh Circuit vacated the trial court's judgment of acquittal, partly because the trial court misapplied the standard cited above. From the Miranda ruling:

The Government seeks reversal of the judgment of acquittal on the ground that the District Court failed to draw all permissible inferences in favor of the jury's guilty verdict, and did not view the evidence in the light most favorable to the Government. We reverse the judgment of acquittal because we conclude that the evidence was sufficient to demonstrate that Mr. Miranda was a member of the conspiracy, and that he is guilty of the possession crimes that were committed in furtherance of the conspiracy.

The Miranda case and Patel were fairly similar, but there is at least one very important difference--the Miranda case led to a jury verdict of guilty, while two trials in Patel led to deadlocked juries. That difference explains the government's ability to appeal in Miranda--and its inability to appeal in Patel. That might seem unfair, even nonsensical, to a reasonable citizen. But we will explain in a moment how an appeal in Patel would run afoul of the Double Jeopardy Clause.

For now, it's back to Haikala. The Patel case boils down to two questions, she writes;

(1) Did Parker engage in an unreasonable use of force?

(2) Did Parker willfully deprive Patel of his civil rights?

At this point, Haikala seems to understand the proper standard for review and the key issues in the case. That's a good thing. But Haikala then veers wildly off course.

Over and over, she fails to view the evidence "in the light most favorable to the government." One of many examples can be found on pages 33-34 of the judge's ruling:

Officer Parker stated that as he pulled Mr. Patel toward the grass, he (Officer Parker) placed his weight on his right leg, and he lost his balance and fell with Mr. Patel. . . .
Some of the MPD officers who watched the dashcam video testified that Officer Parker used a leg sweep to take Mr. Patel to the ground. . . . Captain Stringer testified that what he saw in the dashcam video was not consistent with MPD policy because he “didn’t see what appeared to be resistance” from Mr. Patel, such that “[t]he amount of force that was used at the time didn’t meet the level of any resistance that might have been offered.” (Doc. 106, p. 18). Captain Sanders, the Government’s use-of-force expert, testified that the technique that Officer Parker used was not consistent with prevailing police standards. (Doc. 106, p. 47). Based on the motion of Mr. Patel’s body, Captain Sanders opined that Officer Parker must have kicked Mr. Patel’s feet out from under him. (Doc. 106, p. 52). Captain Sanders stated that the technique that Officer Parker used was violent, and there were less violent techniques that Officer Parker could have used to control Mr. Patel. (Doc. 106, p. 49).

You have two expert witnesses stating . . .

(1) Patel did not appear to resist;

(2) The amount of force Parker used was not appropriate for the situation;

(3) The technique Parker used is contrary to prevailing police standards;

(4) Parker apparently kicked Patel's feet out from under him, a more violent technique than was necessary to control Patel.

All of those statements go to one of the two key questions in the trial: Did Parker engage in unreasonable use of force? Multiple government witnesses said the answer was yes--and, by law, Haikala was required to view the evidence in a light most favorable to the prosecution.

Madeline Haikala
But the judge did not do that; she sided with defense claims that Parker used a reasonable level of force. In other words, Haikala ruled unlawfully--and there are probably another dozen or more examples where she does the same thing.

Judge Haikala's ruling is a gross miscarriage of justice, on numerous grounds, but the prosecution's hands are tied because of the Double Jeopardy Clause.

The best explanation of double jeopardy we've found comes from a case styled U.S. vs. Jenkins, 420 U.S. 358 (1975). From that case:

In those cases, where the defendants had not been adjudged guilty, the Government's appeal was not permitted since further proceedings, usually in the form of a full retrial, would have followed. Here there was a judgment discharging the defendant, although we cannot say with assurance whether it was, or was not, a resolution of the factual issues against the Government. But it is enough for purposes of the Double Jeopardy Clause, and therefore for the determination of appealability under 18 U. S. C. § 3731, that further proceedings of some sort, devoted to the resolution of factual issues going to the elements of the offense charged, would have been required upon reversal and remand. Even if the District Court were to receive no additional evidence, it would still be necessary for it to make supplemental findings. The trial, which could have resulted in a judgment of conviction, has long since terminated in respondent's favor. To subject him to any further such proceedings at this stage would violate the Double Jeopardy Clause.

In ever-day language, Haikala's ruling cannot be appealed because, if it were overturned, that would subject Parker to further proceedings. And our legal system takes seriously a defendant's right not to be tried multiple times for the same offense.

I can find nothing in the law that would have kept Haikala from denying the Motion to
Acquit and ordering a third jury trial. In the interests of justice, that is what should have happened. Instead, she unilaterally took Parker's fate out of a jury's hand and made the decision herself--and she did it in a way that the prosecution, representing the people of Alabama and the other 49 states, could not appeal.

Here is one harsh way to look at it: Judge Haikala screwed the public, and the victim (Patel), and she did it in a way where neither one can seek redress.

Does that kind of decision contribute to the resentment many citizens seem to feel toward police? We suspect the answer is yes..

(To be continued)

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Anonymous said...

Don't know which is scarier, Donald Trump being elected president or the possibility of all out war between cops and people who are sick of police brutality.

Anonymous said...

I thought Obama's statement about the police killings was very good, right on target.

Anonymous said...

Wonder why Luther Strange dropped the state charges against Parker. I hadn't heard about that.

Anonymous said...

Lutha probably was just following the federal judge's lead. The man has no spine, none.

Anonymous said...

If that's not a felony assault in the Patel video, then I don't know what is.

Anonymous said...

Judges . . . lawyers . . . police chiefs . . . sheriffs . . . cops . . . deputies -- they are all cut from the same cloth in our "justice" system. When a cop goes before a court, the proceedings are managed and manipulated by a member of his own team. No wonder he gets favorable treatment.