The former Minneapolis police officer convicted of murder in George Floyd’s death made his initial appearance Tuesday on federal charges alleging he violated Floyd’s civil rights by pinning the Black man to the pavement with his knee.
Derek Chauvin, 45, wore an orange prison shirt when he appeared in federal court via videoconference from Minnesota’s maximum-security prison in Oak Park Heights, where he’s being held as he awaits sentencing following his April conviction on murder and manslaughter charges.
Chauvin, in his first public appearance since he was escorted out of a Minnesota courtroom, was in a small room with a white brick wall behind him and a window in front of him. He wore a surgical mask at first but took it off when U.S. Magistrate Judge Becky Thorson said he could. He sat with his hands in front of him and occasionally took notes. He leaned forward and squinted slightly, as if he was listening intently, and leaned forward even more when he answered the judge’s questions.
Chauvin stated his name and age, and said he understood the charges against him and his rights. When asked if he knew he had a right to a detention hearing, he said: “I do now, Your Honor… Probably in light of my current circumstances I believe that would be a moot point.” After a brief off-record discussion with his attorney, Eric Nelson, he waived his right to a detention hearing and Thorson ordered him into federal custody.
The Minnesota Department of Corrections confirmed that he will be in federal custody but will stay in the state prison.
The federal charges allege Chauvin violated Floyd’s rights as he restrained him face-down while he was handcuffed and not resisting. Three other former officers — J. Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao — face similar federal charges. Chauvin is also charged in a separate indictment alleging he violated the rights of a 14-year-old boy in 2017.
Floyd, 46, repeatedly said he couldn’t breathe as Chauvin pinned him to the ground. Kueng and Lane helped restrain Floyd — Kueng knelt on Floyd’s back and Lane held down Floyd’s legs. Thao held back bystanders and kept them from intervening during the 9 1/2-minute restraint that was captured on bystander video and led to worldwide protests and calls for change in policing.
While all four officers are charged broadly with depriving Floyd of his rights while acting under government authority, the counts that name Chauvin allege he violated Floyd’s right to be free from unreasonable seizure and from unreasonable force by a police officer. They also allege he and the others deprived Floyd of liberty without due process when they failed to provide him with medical care.
Nelson argued during Chauvin’s murder trial that the officer acted reasonably and Floyd died because of underlying health issues and drug use. He has filed a request for a new trial.
To bring federal charges in deaths involving police, prosecutors must believe an officer acted under the “color of law,” or government authority, and willfully deprived someone’s constitutional rights. That’s a high legal standard. An accident, bad judgment or simple negligence on the officer’s part isn’t enough to support federal charges; prosecutors have to prove the officers knew what they were doing was wrong in that moment but did it anyway.
The federal case sends a strong message about the Justice Department’s priorities. When President Joe Biden was elected, he promised he’d work to end disparities in the criminal justice system. Federal prosecutors have also brought hate crimes charges in the death of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, and the Justice Department has launched sweeping investigations into the police departments in Minneapolis and Louisville, Kentucky.
The other indictment against Chauvin alleges he deprived a then-14-year-old boy, who is Black, of his right to be free of unreasonable force when he held the teen by the throat, hit him in the head with a flashlight and held his knee on the boy’s neck and upper back while he was prone, handcuffed and not resisting.
According to a police report from that 2017 encounter, Chauvin wrote the teen resisted arrest and that after the teen, whom he described as 6-foot-2 and about 240 pounds, was handcuffed, Chauvin “used body weight to pin” him to the floor. The boy was bleeding from the ear and needed two stitches.
Chauvin was convicted in April on state charges of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in Floyd’s death. Experts say he will likely face no more than 30 years in prison when he is sentenced June 25. If convicted in the federal case, any federal sentence would be served at the same time as his state sentence.
The other former officers face charges of aiding and abetting both second-degree murder and manslaughter. They are free on bond and face state trial in March.