Judge Acquits Officer Eric Parker
Jan. 15, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — Eric Parker is lucky. Really lucky. Because he is a cop, he doesn’t get the same crappy federal criminal trial experience the normal citizen gets. He gets the one that looks fair. An order issued Wednesday acquitted him on criminal civil rights charges. In 92 pages of bending over backwards to find reasonable doubt for ex-officer Parker, Judge Madeline Haikala showed people why the police really don’t care what they do to the regular dopes in the street.
A citizen called the police to let them know a suspicious black man was walking in the neighborhood looking at houses. Knowing that only would-be burglars walk around neighborhoods while black, the Madison, Alabama police officers raced to the scene to launch an investigation.
Sureshbai Patel was an Indian man walking the street. Not black, but whatever. Close enough. He ain’t from around Alabama, obviously. Having just arrived in America within to live with his son and help with the family, Patel spoke limited English. And in Madison, Alabama, that’s going to get you an ass-whupping.
Several uniformed officers converged on Patel, despite the fact he did not really match the description given by the concerned citizen. It seems pretty clear from both the video of the incident and references to testimony in the judge’s order that the officers quickly figured out Patel could not speak English very well.
The lack of communication, as expected, made compliance with the officers’ demands pretty hard. Which, of course, pissed Parker off. Patel was trying to explain why he was there. Parker, unconcerned with the explanation, just wanted to frisk Patel and see if he was the imaginary burglar called in earlier.
The video shows Parker slam Patel to the ground. At the same time he was driving Patel to the ground, he was holding Patel’s hands. Patel, unable to break his fall, hit the ground with his face at full speed. His nose was busted. More tragically, he is now paralyzed and it’s unclear whether he will ever recover. Welcome to America, Mr. Patel.
The feds indicted Parker for violating Patel’s civil rights by using excessive force against him. That should be a pretty easy case when the victim is a paralyzed, innocent man who was just out for a morning walk.
Two juries heard the criminal case against Parker last fall. Neither could reach a verdict. After the second jury hung and the cases ended up as a mistrial, Parker’s defense attorney renewed a Rule 29 motion for acquittal. This is a standard motion defendants file in federal criminal cases, arguing there is insufficient evidence to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
When a Rule 29 motion is made, the Court is required to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the government. In other words, they rarely get much thought. They don’t result in 92-page orders too often, and they certainly don’t result in acquittals.
So what is the difference in Parker’s case? How does the government convict every young black man they can find a snitch to testify against, but hit a brick wall with a cop who paralyzed a guy on video?
Enter Judge Haikala. The order reflects a very curious Rule 29 consideration. Acknowledging the Rule 29 requirement that she was supposed to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the government, Haikala immediately proceeded to do just the opposite.
Two questions governed Haikala’s decision: (1) Did Parker unreasonably use force against Patel? And, (2) did Parker willfully violate Patel’s constitutional rights? The first question is governed by an objective standard, which means the judge can believe whatever she believes. The second question is governed by a subjective standard which means whatever the cop believed. Nothing at all confusing about that.
In determining the first question, Haikala’s objective standard requires her to determine whether Parker met the “reasonable officer” standard:
“The ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” And “reasonableness” must be evaluated based on the totality of the circumstances confronting an officer at “the moment” the officer employed force: “‘[n]ot every push or shove, even if it may later seem unnecessary in the peace of a judge’s chambers,’ violates the Fourth Amendment.”
In summary, paralyzing a man by shoving his face into a sidewalk, even when the man did nothing, might be perfectly okay once that officer gets over to the courthouse. Basically, the judge views the officer’s actions through the eyes of the officer. But with a video of him slamming a man, who had committed no crime, down to the ground, surely the judge can see why this was an unreasonable use of force.
Nope. Judge Haikala buys right into the whole idea that the police are constantly racing towards danger in heroic attempts to protect the citizens:
Officers are trained to treat every call as a serious call and to take nothing for granted because every situation is potentially dangerous.
The reason for the acquittal becomes clearer as Haikala explains what these policemen were faced with on the morning Patel’s ability to walk was destroyed:
The record demonstrates that a reasonable officer in Officer Parker’s position would suspect that the individual who the known caller described was involved in a burglary. Officer Spence explained that there were periodic residential and automobile break-ins in the Hardiman Place area.
The only problem with that statement is that it is completely wrong. There were actually no facts to support the idea Patel, an elderly grandfather, was a burglar. Only an unreasonable police officer would think Patel needed both a pat down and a beat down.
Judge Haikala explains the initial encounter with Patel. Patel turned around, waved, and explained he was out walking. She said the video was not clear as to what he said. So Rule 29 says the judge should believe Patel. But she is worried about the safety of the officers:
Officers are trained that armed subjects will be evasive and will refuse to answer questions.
Well, armed subjects along with people who can’t speak English. The video makes it pretty clear the officers knew Patel could not speaking English well. The idea that he was armed is completely unsupported. The court found Parker did not believe Patel could not speak English, which is directly contradicted by the video. You know, a video. Also known as “objective evidence.”
Right after Haikala talks about how dangerous hands in pockets are, she states the video doesn’t show Patel actually putting his hands in his pockets. There was no order to remove Patel’s hands from his pockets on the video. What was actually on the video?
Officer McCullars [a government witness] testified that the movement of Mr. Patel’s feet was visible in the slow motion recording, and that movement was an indicator of potential passive resistance because “[p]eople will often shift their feet in order to change their stance to set a path for fleeing.”
Apparently that is what led to smashing Patel’s face into the ground being an “objectively reasonable use of force.” The furtive shifting of feet.
The evidence on willfulness was hotly disputed. But Judge Haikala found that, even though there was strong evidence both ways regarding willfulness, it just wasn’t enough.
Unlike the record in Ragsdale, the evidence here reveals that Officer Parker made a split-second decision in a rapidly evolving situation rather than a premeditated decision to use violent force. And unlike the records in Screws, Johnstone, and Reese, the evidence in this case reflects that Officer Parker did nothing to harm Mr. Patel after he took Mr. Patel to the ground.
Apparently, Parker’s actions were not willful because he didn’t plan to use violence against Patel. More importantly, once he smashed Patel’s face into the sidewalk and paralyzed him, there was no more beating on Patel. Under that standard, take a wild guess how many cops are ever going to be convicted?
Haikala cut Parker a huge break. She gave him every benefit of the doubt. She ignored prosecution evidence and credited defense evidence. When there was a dispute between testimony, she gave reasonable officer Parker the points and he won.
Fair trials are important. Reasonable doubt gets swept away in the course of a trial and people get convicted on little more than suspicion and allegation.
But not police officers. They get real trials. And it’s interesting those real trials rarely result in a conviction. Maybe Judge Haikala can consider the next criminal case the same way she considered Parker’s. But don’t hold your breath.