According to The New York Times, five police officers are facing various state felony charges and federal civil rights, conspiracy, and obstruction offense charges due to their role in the beating death of a 29-year-old Black man, Tyre Nichols. Here are the important facts and legal issues to know about this case.
Background on the Case
In January 2023, Tyre Nichols was stopped by Memphis, Tennessee police for seemingly no reason. He was forcibly pulled out of the car, beaten, pepper sprayed and tased. He eventually died from these injuries. The police department investigated everything, changed policy, and fired everyone related to the incident.
One of the people fired was a supervisor, who instantly retired, but we think he was fired. The supervisor being fired is somewhat interesting in light of our previous articles and discussion of Monell Claims for failure to train and supervise because the man was a supervisor. Often in Monell Claims, there is no written policy, so we have to argue a de facto custom or policy. This means that, while it’s not written, all of the officers on the job follow the custom or unwritten policy, so their actions really are within the policy. Sometimes it’s a tough argument, but here, a supervisor is involved in the incident, so the municipality will be hard-pressed to make that type of argument.
Another interesting part of this case in a criminal law context is the officers were charged in both state and federal court for killing Nichols. We often get questions from clients regarding this form of double prosecution, seemingly a violation of double jeopardy. The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has previously ruled state court criminal proceedings are initiated by a separate sovereign than a federal criminal case, and not a double jeopardy violation. Officially, this idea is called the “dual sovereignty” doctrine.
Many in the legal community think the separate sovereign rule is intellectually dishonest, with the hope SCOTUS would reverse it. However, in Denezpi v. USA, 142 S.Ct. 1838 (2022), Justice Barrett wrote for the Supreme Court and upheld the dual sovereignty doctrine, and, in my opinion, extended the doctrine because the first prosecution of Denezpi was in a Native American Tribal Court, which is technically a federal court. The second prosecution was in a United States District Court, so this is the same sovereign, in my opinion.
Here, the Memphis police officers are in big trouble, pulling a guy over for no reason, beating him to death, and being prosecuted in both federal and state court. Uphill battle.