Three officers charged with aiding and abetting murder in George Floyd case

Three former Minneapolis police officers who were present during the arrest of an unarmed black man have been charged in connection with his subsequent death.

The charges were announced at a press conference Wednesday by Hennepin County District Attorney Mark Freeman and Minnesota State Attorney General Keith Ellison.

Court records obtained by a local news station revealed Thomas Lane, 37; Tou Thao, 34 and Alexander Kueng, 26 were each charged with one count of unintentionally aiding and abetting murder and one count of intentionally aiding and abetting manslaughter.

The charges stem from last week’s arrest of George Floyd, a Minneapolis resident who was accused by a deli employee of attempting to make a purchase with counterfeit money.

One officer, 44-year-old Derek Chauvin, was captured on video kneeling on Floyd’s neck during the arrest. Throughout the video, Floyd could be heard telling the officers he was in pain and unable to breathe.

Floyd’s lifeless body was placed on an ambulance stretcher and removed from the scene of the arrest. Video of the incident, first posted to Twitter, sparked a national outcry and led to days of protests in major cities across the country.

Last Friday, Chauvin was charged with third-degree murder and third-degree unintentional manslaughter. On Wednesday, prosecutors added a second-degree murder charge against the officer.

Earlier this week, defense attorney Mark Reichel told FOX40 News he anticipated charges against the other three officers captured on cellphone videos during Floyd’s arrest.

On Wednesday, Mark said the additional second-degree charge is a more-serious offense that could carry a lengthier prison sentence, adding that prosecutors may have more evidence proving Chauvin’s intent.

“Second-degree murder charge means [Chauvin] intended the killing at some point,” Mark told FOX40 News. “Second-degree murder in Minnesota means there was a use of force and he intended to cause bodily harm, serious bodily harm, and during it someone died.”

Mark said it was unlikely prosecutors would have prevailed in court with a third-degree murder charge because Minnesota law requires proof that a person killed more than one individual during the incident.

“Had the case stayed with the county attorney and stayed as third-degree murder, [the officer] likely would have won the case,” Mark said.

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Accomplice charges likely coming for other officers involved in George Floyd’s death

One week after an unarmed Minneapolis man died during a police encounter, community members and activists continue calling for charges against three officers who were connected to the incident.

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is the only person so far to faces charges in connection with the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man whose arrest made international headlines following his death.

A bystander to the arrest captured cellphone video showing Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck during the arrest. Multiple times, Floyd could be heard telling Chauvin and other officers on scene that he was in pain and couldn’t breathe.

Floyd’s lifeless body was placed on a stretcher and taken away from the scene in an ambulance, the video shows. He was pronounced dead a short time later.

Chauvin was arrested last Friday and booked into jail on charges of manslaughter and third-degree murder. But three other officers at the scene — Thomas Lane, J.A. Kueng and Tou Thao —  have not been criminally charged in connection with Floyd’s death.

Sacramento criminal defense attorney Mark Reichel told FOX40 News on Tuesday he believes charges against the other three officers are forthcoming, and it’s simply a matter of time before prosecutors in Minnesota announce them.

“Once you’re aware a crime is being committed, if your presence is enough to prevent it from being stopped, you can be charged as an accomplice,” Mark said.

The three officers could be charged with accomplice liability — also known as aiding and abetting — for having reasonable knowledge that Chauvin was committing a crime but failing to stop it. Eyewitness video captured at the scene showed at least one officer repeatedly telling bystanders to stay out of the street while he was standing mere feet away from Chauvin and Floyd.

The video evidence is likely going to be key in charging the other three officers with accomplice liability in the future.

“It’s going to come down to, what did you see? What did you hear? What did you know?” Mark said. “It’s my understanding they’re looking at the facts right now. Some of those facts are, when were they aware there was no pulse? When were they aware those other officers are saying, roll him over…to the right side?”

In a separate but related legal action, state officials in Minnesota filed a civil rights complaint against the Minneapolis Police Department. That complaint opens the door for state investigators to comb through nearly a decade of police cases connected to the department to see if there are additional civil rights violations.

Why aren’t more police officers charged when people die?

Eyewitness video of police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of George Floyd sent shockwaves throughout the United States and sparked demonstrations in major cities across the country, including an organized protest in Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood on Friday.

Their message: Police need to be held accountable for their actions and brought to justice.

It’s extremely rare for police officers to be charged when a person dies as the result of a law enforcement encounter. In Sacramento, similar protests were sparked after police officers shot and killed Stephon Clark, a 23-year-old black man who was not armed when he was confronted by officers.

After a year-long investigation, Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert declined to file charges against the officers involved in the Clark case.

“There was no justice or accountability for my brother,” Stevante Clark, the brother of Stephon Clark, said at Friday’s rally, according to a report. “I think we have to wait to see how this plays out to see if George Floyd gets justice because at the end of the day, transparency with accountability means nothing.”

So why aren’t more law enforcement officers charged when people die during police encounters?

“The main reason is no prosecutor, for political reasons and to get reelected, ever wants to lose a high-profile case,” Sacramento criminal defense attorney Mark Reichel told FOX40 News. “It’s better to not bring it than to lose a high-profile case and, obviously, officer-involved killings are always high-profile.”

Prosecutors typically bring cases they feel they can prove beyond a reasonable doubt, legal experts say, and juries are typically more likely to believe police officers acted out of self-defense or a sense of danger when presented with conflicting evidence or testimony.

But the video evidence in George Floyd’s death showed precisely the opposite. The videos published earlier this week didn’t just triggered protests — they also led to calls for an investigation and charges from law enforcement groups across the country.

That evidence, prosecutors in Minneapolis said, was key in bringing charges against Chauvin.

“This is by far the fastest that we’ve ever charged a police officer,” Mike Freeman, the top prosecutor in Hennepin County, Minnesota, said at a press conference.

Late Friday afternoon, U.S. Attorney William Barr said the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were also investigating whether Floyd’s civil rights were violated.

“Both state and federal officers are working diligently and collaboratively to ensure that any available evidence relevant to these decisions is obtained as quickly as possible,” Barr said.

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Senate, Trump likely to reject bill that would have lowered cost of prison phone calls during pandemic

A massive second stimulus package that would have provided $3 trillion in relief due to the ongoing coronavirus health pandemic included a much-needed cap on the cost of phone calls placed by inmates in prisons and jails to loved ones.

Passed on May 18, the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act included programs and policies that would have expanded health insurance, rural broadband connectivity, benefits for veterans, financial assistance to the U.S. Postal Service and assistance to federal aviation and railroad workers. In addition to that assistance, it would have provided another $1,200 economic relief check to millions of Americans at a time when unemployment filings are at a record high.

One little known provision of the HEROES Act is a cap on the cost of phone calls placed between inmates and their families.

Telephone calls from jails and prisons are often portrayed in TV shows and the movies as a lifeline between characters in custody and those on the outside world. Often left out of the script is just how much those calls can add up in a relatively short period of time.

At one federal prison in California, phone calls cost $3.25 and are capped at 15 minutes per session. That works out to more than 21 cents a minute, more than double what Sprint charged for long-distance service in the mid-1990s.

One woman in Massachusetts said she spends more than $6,000 a year connecting with her incarcerated husband over the phone. Her calls costs between $5 and $6 a minute each, and that’s before the prison’s phone service tacks on administrative fees.

While inmates may make for unsympathetic subjects, the exorbitant cost of phone calls is problematic for everyone: Studies have shown that when inmates have contact with their family and friends, it helps them become positive, productive members of society at the end of their sentences. But the expense of phone calls has the opposite effect on disenfranchised inmates who are too poor to afford them.

To make matters worse, the ongoing health crisis brought on by the novel coronavirus COVID-19 has led to jails and prisons halting in-person family visits. The phone remains one of the few tools available to inmates who need to maintain their relationships with loved ones on the outside.

Advocates have long pushed for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the federal agency that regulates telecommunication services in the country, to impose a per-minute fee cap on the cost of prison phone calls. Lawmakers finally appeared ready to act with the passage of the HEROES Act, which capped collect phone calls at $0.75 per 15-minute session, making the per-minute cost around $0.05. Prepaid phone calls, where inmates pay for the cost of the session, would be limited to $0.04 cents per minute.

The HEROES Act passed on May 15 with a 208-199 vote that was largely divided along party lines, with Democrats largely favoring the bill and Republicans opposing it.

“This is the most significant federal legislative vote on prison phone justice in history, and it is needed now more than ever,” Bianca Tylek, an executive director with the advocacy group Worth Rises, said in a statement. “Right now, in the middle of an economic crisis, predatory prison telecom corporations are still charging families as much as $25 for a 15-minute call with an incarcerated loved one. The exorbitant cost of these calls has long pushed families—disproportionately Black and Brown due to racist policies and policing—into debt, but times are even harder due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

But the measure still has to be passed by Senate lawmakers and signed into law by President Donald Trump. Both of those things are unlikely after lawmakers in the Senate and officials with the Trump administration said they were hesitant to go forward with a second economic stimulus package.

Republican senators have called the House bill “dead on arrival” and have resisted efforts to take up the measure. Senate Leader Mitch McConnell has acknowledged the need for further economic relief, but says he intends to work with officials within the Trump administration to determine what’s needed and what’s not.

Whether that need will include a financial break for inmates who need to connect with their loved ones remains to be seen.

New records reveal how ICE, Border Patrol use secretive cellphone surveillance tool

For years, law enforcement agencies across the United States have attempted to keep details of a dragnet cellphone surveillance tool under wraps. But their efforts have fallen short time and time again thanks to intrepid journalists and civil liberties groups who have successfully filed public records requests seeking information about these spy devices.

One of the most-recent requests of this type comes from the American Civili Liberties Union and the New York Civil Liberties Union who for two years have fought federal immigration agencies to learn more about how their law enforcement officers use so-called Stingray devices to catch targets and gather evidence.

Sold by the Florida-based Harris Corporation, a “Stingray” is a cell site simulator device that tricks phones to connect to it instead of a legitimate communications tower. When deployed, Stingrays force all phones in a given area — sometimes as large as a few city blocks — to re-route phone signals to it. Using attached computers, law enforcement officers are able to obtain phone data like call and text message logs and geographic location.

While officers may be using Stingrays to capture criminal suspects, their design means ordinary, often innocent individuals also have their phone data swooped up by the devices. Few law enforcement agencies have acknowledged using the devices, and even fewer have offered details about how they purge data of innocent individuals who are not the targets of their investigations.

The shroud of secrecy around Stingrays and similar devices runs so deep that prosecutors have been known to drop criminal cases to keep police use of these devices hidden from public knowledge. Some criminal cases have later been re-opened after judges and defense attorneys learned that “confidential sources” used in investigations were actually Stingrays.

Law enforcement agencies say they’ve been directed by federal officials to keep their purchase and use of Stingrays and other devices a secret because of non-disclosure agreements forged between those agencies, the federal government and Harris Corporation. But judges have routinely sided with the ACLU and other organizations who file records requests for information about Stingrays, and details about the devices have trickled out for years.

One of the most-egregious details learned from public records requests is how state, county and local law enforcement agencies are able to obtain the devices. Records show departments routinely request Department of Homeland Security grants to purchase Stingrays and accessories, which can total in the thousands of dollars.

Grant applications say police departments, including some in California, need to obtain the devices for use in anti-terrorism investigations. But documents obtained by local media outlets show the devices are often used in ordinary criminal investigations with no nexus to terrorism or homeland security matters.

In 2017, the Detroit News published an article describing how immigration agents there were using Stingrays to track down undocumented immigrants following a crackdown issued by President Donald Trump. That report was the basis for a series of public records requests filed by the ACLU seeking information on how often Immigrations and Custom Enforcement (ICE), Border Patrol and other federal immigration agencies were using Stingrays and for what purpose.

After waiting two years, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against ICE and their sister agencies, the Customs and Border Patrol (CPB). The lawsuit worked, and earlier this year, those federal agencies started handing over hundreds of documents (PDF 1, PDF 2) related to their use of Stingrays and other devices.

According to the ACLU, the documents show ICE spent hundreds of thousands of dollars securing Stingrays and upgrading to newer hardware called Crossbow that allows immigration agents to track 3G and 4G LTE smartphones of targets. The documents show ICE had used either a Stingray, Crossbow or some other kind of cellphone transmitter simulator more than 400 times between 2017 and 2019.

One of the most alarming revelations in the document is that law enforcement agencies have known since at least 2016 that ordinary phone users can deploy so-called “IMSI catchers” that simulate the very data collection activity that Stingrays and Crossbows possess. While federal officials suggested deploying anti-IMSI catchers in the wild, they worked hard to keep knowledge about this vulnerability a secret, even though it had the ability to threaten the privacy and security of ordinary phone users.

Worse, while officials in other countries have measured whether use of Stingrays or Crossbows can impair a person’s ability to make emergency phone calls (they can, studies conducted by these governments show), federal agencies have so far failed to carry out their own similar testing to see if using these phone surveillance tools could interfere with 9-1-1- calls.

“There can’t be accountability without transparency,” the ACLU said in a statement issued earlier this week. “The release of these records — albeit with redactions — provides some helpful insights into what was previously an extremely secretive surveillance practice. …  That’s good news, but concerns remain.”

Those concerns include how ICE uses these surveillance tools in ordinary immigration cases while telling the public that it doesn’t and CPB’s failure to turn over documents under the ACLU’s FOIA (the CPB says it has no responsive records, but the ACLU said this is unlikely because documents already made public revealed CPB had spent $2.5 million to obtain 33 cellphone transmitter simulator devices).

“We’re demanding the court order CBP to explain how it conducted its prior searches for records responsive to our FOIA request and to conduct a new search for responsive records,” the ACLU said. “The use of powerful, surreptitious surveillance equipment is concerning in any context. But when agencies such as ICE and CBP, with a long history of abusive practices, evade requests for information and then obfuscate provided information, we should all be concerned.”

Monterey County prosecutors open probe into Tara Reade’s prior testimony

Prosecutors in Monterey County, California have launched a formal investigation into Tara Reade, the woman who recently accused presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and former senator Joe Biden of sexual assault.

Reade, who also went by the name Alexandra McCabe, offered expert testimony in dozens of criminal cases as a special victim’s advocate, according to numerous reports.

But some of her sworn testimony has come under fire following investigations by CNN and other news outlets that show inconsistencies in her education and employment background.

Reade made international headlines earlier this year after accusing Biden of sexual assault while she worked as an employee of the senator’s office in the early 1990s (Biden has denied the accusation). Years later, Reade found herself in Washington state where she claimed she graduated from Antioch University in Seattle with an Associate’s Degree and received a law degree from Seattle University.

Reade offered that part of her education history under oath in numerous cases brought by the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office, some of which resulted in criminal convictions. But reporters who contacted Antioch University to confirm her education history were told she never graduated from the school.

Reade also misconstrued the nature of her work in Sen. Biden’s office, according to one report, testifying under oath that she worked as a legislative assistant when she was actually a staff assistant, according to employment records obtained by the New York Times. And in one 2018 case, Reade said she had not taken the California bar exam, even though blog posts written by her several years earlier said she twice failed the exam.

Prosecutors are now going through cases dating back several years to see if Reade intentionally lied while on the stand, according to POLITICO. An official with the prosecutor’s office said it’s unclear how many cases Reade testified in because the county doesn’t have a way to sort through cases digitally.

“We have no database or search engine to use to determine how many cases she testified,” Berkley Brannon, the county’s chief assistant district attorney, told POLITICO.

If Reade is found to have exaggerated her qualifications on the stand, it could be grounds for a reversal of some criminal convictions, Sacramento criminal defense attorney Mark Reichel told the New York Times last week.

“An expert can only testify in certain circumstances,” Mark said. “One of them is that they have expertise above the regular person. The jury is entitled to hear your qualifications.”

Class action lawsuit filed over Lompoc prison conditions during coronavirus pandemic

A chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of inmates at a federal prison in Lompoc over the ongoing health crisis brought on by the novel coronavirus COVID-19.

In a 189-page document filed in federal court earlier this month, staff attorneys with the ACLU argue conditions inside the federal prison coupled with the viral pandemic amount to cruel and unusual punishment, which violates inmates’ Eighth Amendment rights.

The pleading reveals horrific details of what is allegedly taking place inside the Lompoc prison during the crisis. One asthmatic inmate who reportedly showed symptoms of COVID-19 was “ignored for days and denied medical treatment,” the ACLU alleges, while another inmate who is scheduled to be released later this year is being forced to spend the remainder of his sentenced in “a hastily converted warehouse where he is locked in his cell and not even allowed to shower.”

The Lompoc facility has been one of the hardest hit in Bureau of Prisons system since government officials formally recognized the health crisis in early March. To date, more than 900 inmates at Lompoc’s low-security prison have tested positive for the virus, while another 112 have tested positive at an adjacent high-security penitentiary, according to data released by federal prison officials.

Between the two facilities, nearly 20 inmates have died, the data shows.

Prison officials contend inmates are receiving medical screening and care throughout their facilities, but the ACLU said that hasn’t been the case for some inmates at the Lompoc facilities. In one case, an inmate tested positive only to be locked in administrative segregation where he was denied medical attention for days, the ACLU says.

To make matters worse, while some prisons have increased phone call allowances to make up for a lack of in-person visitation during the crisis, staff at the Lompoc prisons have restricted access to institutional phones and email services, which has made it difficult for inmates to contact their families and lawyers, the ACLU says.

“Respondents and their ineffectual and unnecessarily cruel policy of isolating positive cases in solitary confinement and unsanitary makeshift living spaces has completely failed to stop or even slow the spread of the virus,” the ACLU wrote in their lawsuit. Making matters worse, the ACLU says, around 2,000 inmates still have yet to be tested at the higher-security penitentiary despite the mass outbreak at the adjacent low-security facility.

The ACLU says it is not seeking the release of any inmates connected to the lawsuit. Instead, the lawsuit is seeking an order that would require prison officials at Lompoc to expeditiously review inmates that may be eligible for home confinement, implement social distancing measures and provide adequate medical care to inmates at the prison facilities there, among other things.

The lawsuit names Lompoc Warden Louis Milusnic and Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal as defendants in the suit. A similar lawsuit was filed simultaneously against the warden of the Terminal Island prison near Los Angeles.