The judge overseeing the trial of Derek Chauvin, one of four former Minneapolis police officers charged in the alleged murder of George Floyd, ruled on Tuesday morning that attorneys will not be able to tell a jury that Chauvin was fired from the force. The decision was one of several key evidence rulings the judge issued from the bench before commencing with jury selection.
WATCH Law&Crime’s live coverage of the case here.
Before trials commence, attorneys argue a series of “motions in limine” which seek to sort out broader evidentiary matters without wasting the jury’s time.
Our discussion below lists each evidentiary matter by its original motion number. In some cases, both the prosecution and the defense filed motions to settle the same or similar issues, which the judge addressed in tandem.
Defense Motion #19/State Motion #5 — Chauvin’s Training
Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill said he would allow the jury to hear testimony about Chauvin’s training — even if the content of that training was not directly entered into the Minneapolis Police Department’s written policies.
“If it’s training Mr. Chauvin received before the death of Mr. Floyd, I think we have to recognize that that is relevant — and I would allow it, regardless of policy,” the judge said.
The judge appeared to rest his determination purely on relevance grounds: in other words, the evidence is likely to tilt the needle one way or the other toward guilt or innocence.
Defense Motion #18 — What Other Officers Would Have Done
Judge Cahill said he would not allow other police officers to testify about how they would have handled the arrest of George Floyd. That testimony is best left to experts, the judge said.
Defense attorney Eric Nelson clarified Tuesday morning that he was asking the court “to prohibit witness police officers from testifying or speculating about their — what they would have done if they had been the person who arrested Mr. Floyd.” Nelson cited Graham v. Connor, a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court case which held that an “objective reasonableness” standard applied to civil excessive force claims against government officials. Though the attorneys did not explain the standard in detail, the standard articulated by Justice William Rehnquist in Graham is as follows (internal punctuation and citations omitted):
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.
[ . . . ]
With respect to a claim of excessive force, the same standard of reasonableness at the moment applies: Not every push or shove, even if it may later seem unnecessary in the peace of a judge’s chambers . . . violates the Fourth Amendment. The calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments — in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving — about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.
As in other Fourth Amendment contexts, however, the “reasonableness” inquiry in an excessive force case is an objective one: the question is whether the officers’ actions are “objectively reasonable” in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them, without regard to their underlying intent or motivation. [I]n analyzing the reasonableness of a particular search or seizure, “it is imperative that the facts be judged against an objective standard.” An officer’s evil intentions will not make a Fourth Amendment violation out of an objectively reasonable use of force; nor will an officer’s good intentions make an objectively unreasonable use of force constitutional.
“The question here is whether this is a reasonable use of force,” Nelson said as to the Chauvin case. “There are expert witnesses who are going to testify for the defense, there are expert witnesses who are going to testify for the state, as to that ultimate question in terms to the reasonableness of the force. We also expect training offers from the Minneapolis Police Department to testify about how officers are trained in the Graham v. Connor factors in the reasonableness of the use of force and MPD policy, and all of that, I think, is 100% fair game in the course of this trial.”
Nelson then said that numerous Minneapolis officers at the scene who were “not necessarily involved in this incident” — but rather who were there to log data, tape off the area, etc. — were interviewed. Most were asked about their training and whether they had seen the video of Floyd’s death. Some said they didn’t remember; others gave opinions about what occurred.
The defense wanted to prevent the myriad of opinions from coming into the case as articulated by officers who were not there when Floyd was restrained.
In other words, Nelson said “the ultimate question of, ‘What would you have done differently?'” was a question “best left for others.”
The state said it did not object to the defense’s view of the law or of the facts.
“It sounds like Mr. Nelson and I, and the state, are on the same page,” the prosecutor said.
The judge agreed — but said his order did not limit the testimony of “expert witnesses” and “training officers.” Such opinions about whether the use of force against Floyd was objectively reasonable will be a part of the trial.
Defense Motion #21 — Paramedic Testimony About Whether George Floyd Would Have Lived
Chauvin’s defense does not want a paramedic named Genevieve Hanson to testify that she believes her earlier intervention would have saved George Floyd’s life. The judge agreed.
“Our position is that her testimony, or her opining, that had she been able to intervene, would have saved [his] life, is just simply too speculative,” the defense said. “Certainly, the cause of Mr. Flouyd’s death is of great controversy in this case.”
The defense said Hanson was there to perform CPR but is not a forensic pathologist or a physician.
“Whether or not Mr. Floyd’s death was preventable had she been able to intervene would simply be speculative,” defense attorney Nelson continued, emphasizing the original point.
The state said it did “not intend” to have the paramedic testify about whether Floyd would have lived had the paramedic intervened but suggested it would toe close to that line. The state wanted to explore the “narrow belief that if [Hanson] was able to intervene, or if someone had intervened, they could have saved Mr. Floyd.”
The issue surrounds Minnesota Rule 701 — which says generally that “lay” witnesses (who are not qualified as “experts”) cannot offer opinions on matters outside their core observations. Hanson, the state said, should be able to testify “based on her observation at the scene and her own personal experience and knowledge.”
The judge granted the defense motion but then laid out the very specific parameters by which Hanson could testify.
“Ms. Hanson can describe what she saw; she can describe her training and experience; she can describe what she felt was indications Mr. Floyd was in medical distress; she can indicate that she thought that . . . medical intervention should have been started,” the judge said.
The judge said Hanson did “not have the expertise” to know precisely whether or not “she could have saved him.”
“But she can say almost everything right up to that,” the judge said — including that Hanson believed Floyd needed urgent medical intervention.
“Agreed, your honor,” the defense said.
“That’s the court’s ruling,” the judge concluded.
Defense Motion #5 — Criminal Background Checks
Criminal background reports on jurors are discoverable by the defense, the judge noted, as a function of Minnesota criminal procedure rules.
State Motion #4 — Chauvin’s Termination and Civil Liability
Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell said the decision by the Minneapolis Police Department to fire Derek Chauvin the day after George’s Floyd’s May 25, 2020 death “doesn’t really illuminate whether or not for the jurors the use of force at the time in question was objectively reasonable under all of the circumstances.”
Blackwell said “interjecting” that fact was “unnecessary” because it would lead to inadvertent discussions about race, prejudice, and politics. For instance, he said, the defense has chided the police department for getting rid of Chauvin after the police chief, who is Black, had discussions with “faith leaders” in the Black community.
In other words, that information carried “too much baggage,” Blackwell said, without adding much probative value as to the core legal question of whether Chauvin murdered Floyd.
Defense attorney Nelson said it was not the defense’s intent to inject race into the case. Rather, the defense argued that the evidence was relevant to the question of bias under Minnesota Rule of Evidence 616. The defense said the police chief “immediately recognized” Floyd’s death “was going to have bad optics for the City of Minneapolis.”
The chief consulted with faith leaders and the mayor before terminating the officers despite stating that at least three of the officers “appeared to be acting consistently with training,” Nelson said. “So, a decision to terminate someone based on an absence of evidence is probative of the chief’s bias and concern about how the community would respond to this.”
Nelson added that the City of Minneapolis made “a substantial Rule 68 offer” in response to a civil lawsuit filed by George Floyd’s family. A Rule 68 offer is a settlement offer under the Minnesota Rules of Civil Procedure.
“The city acted in an effort — immediately, within hours — to attempt to limit its liability and distance themselves from this incident, whether it be for politics or it be simply to potentially mitigate financial exposure to the city, that is the very nature of bias. And, if chief [Medaria] Arradondo is going to be testifying . . . certainly, the underlying fact that he made this decision absent a full investigation or even a partial investigation; he made this decision based on how he feared the community generally would react to this. That goes to bias, your honor.”
Proceustor Jerry Blackwell said the state took “tremendous issue” with some of the defense’s characterizations. They said the firings were based on video evidence and that the chief did not take a “poll of faith leaders” about what to do.
“Chief Arradondo made his decision based on what he saw; based on what his knowledge of appropriate conduct was and for him, it wasn’t even close to the line when he made his decision. He informed the community of what he had decided; he wasn’t asking them what he should do,” prosecutor Blackwell said.
The judge said he feared the trial ending up in various “rabbit holes” of evidence that would not help the jury decide the actual legal issues at bar.
The judge ultimately said he would allow testimony about Chauvin’s employment dates and the fact that Chauvin was no longer employed but not about the fact Chauvin was terminated.
[image via screen capture from the Law&Crime Network]
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