Police Abuse

Should the Cop Who Killed Philando Castile Face Federal Charges?

Although SCOTUS says otherwise, trying Jeronimo Yanez again for the same shooting would effectively be double jeopardy.


David Joles/ZUMA Press/Newscom

After Jeronimo Yanez, the Minnesota police officer who killed Philando Castile, was acquitted of second-degree manslaughter last week, Castile's family called upon the federal government to step in and see that justice is done. While that impulse is understandable, federal prosecution of Yanez after his state acquittal would be inappropriate and dangerous to civil liberties.

According to the Supreme Court's "dual sovereignty" doctrine, this sort of serial prosecution does not violate the Fifth Amendment's ban on double jeopardy: Although the underlying actions may be the same in both cases, there are two distinct offenses defined by two distinct governments. But there can be little doubt what is actually going on here.

"We would like to see if this could go to a federal court," Castile's uncle told the New York Daily News last week. "Even though this went the wrong way, we can still look for justice." In other words, the first jury got it wrong, so let's see what a second jury says. That is just the sort of abuse that the ban on double jeopardy was meant to prevent. It is functionally identical to trying Castile again in a Minnesota court, which according to the Supreme Court would be clearly unconstitutional.

A state jury unanimously acquitted Yanez of causing Castile's death through "culpable negligence." If Yanez were prosecuted under federal law in connection with the shooting, the charge would be that he "willfully" deprived Castile of his civil rights under color of law. If Yanez was not even culpably negligent, he cannot possibly be guilty of violating the federal statute, which has a stronger mens rea requirement. A federal prosecution therefore would be a clear repudiation of the state verdict and an attempt to "correct" it.

I agree with Castile's relatives that the state jury got it wrong. You might even argue that the not-guilty verdict was an example of jury nullification gone awry, that the jurors ignored the law to reach a result they considered just. If so, they were wrong. But there is no evidence that they were malicious or corrupt, and there is no reason to think the state pulled any punches in prosecuting Yanez. There are no glaring flaws or failures of the sort that might justify federal intervention to vindicate Castile's rights. There is just an honest disagreement about what the verdict should have been.

Double jeopardy concerns aside, Yanez is almost certainly not guilty of violating the federal law. All the evidence suggests that he panicked and overreacted in the heat of the moment, meaning that he did not willfully violate Castile's rights.

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  1. …and there is no reason to think the state pulled any punches in prosecuting Yanez.

    I’ll take your word for that.

    1. yea….i am calling bullshit.

  2. I am against the state and fed taking two cracks at the same person for the same offense.

    In this case, the state tried him for murder and the federal government could try him for civil rights violations.

    The problem of juries defaulting to letting police who murder go free, should not be solved with more government power.

  3. So is anyone trying to sue the police department or Yanez in civil court? Seems like it would be much easier to at least get a payout, even if you can’t get justice…

    1. Qualified immunity covers police. The courts rarely waive that immunity even for murder by cop.

      1. It does? Don’t we read here frequently that so and so family received multi-million dollar settlements from cities for police misconduct?

        1. I want to say that in those cases they sue the city, not usually the individual cop in question if memory serves. Not always, obviously, but usually.

        2. They likely can’t sue the officer but can sue the town, for the actions of their agent and negligent hiring and supervision. I think that would be justified and a strong case as the burden of proof is lower. I agree that federal prosecution would be double jeopardy and illegal, not that tever stops them when it is not an agent of the state on trial.

  4. No. It’s double jeopardy. I know the courts have gotten around this by saying state and federal are different jurisdictions, but that’s legal flummery, the kind of crap that degrades respect for the rule of law.

    1. It also encourages the government to weasel around the restrictions placed on its power….not that the submitted who (try to) run our lives need the encouragement.

      I run into this all the time with my Liberal/Progressive in-laws; they want the government to bend a rule constraining its power to achieve “A”. “A” is a worthy cause! I’m not against “A”, am I !?! Well, no. Not as such. But give the government power to do something you like and sure as Fate it will use it to do something you hate.

      1. I run into the same thing, but sometimes I think I am not reading them right. For instance …

        My mother was a socialist atheist, and one of her favorite phrases was along the lines of “they ought to be taken out and shot”. I know she didn’t mean it literally. She was a Eugene Drebs (sp?) kind of socialist who just didn’t think there was any real danger in letting government steal and lock people up, not a Stalinist kind who wanted to punish capitalists etc.

        I myself say similarly stupid things, or think similarly stupid coercive thoughts. “There oughta be a law”, “Somebody oughta …” and so on.

        I think language is one of the most deceitful inventions ever. We misunderstand the most common words and phrases, even with our closest friends. My favorite example is “love”, which refers to trucks, pizza, dogs, jobs, children, parents, spouses, ideas, everything. I remember an uncle asking me if I loved my wife, and being astonished that he would actually expect a real answer, as if he, my wife, and I all had the same interpretation of what that word meant at that exact moment.

        I think the problem is that too many people refuse to acknowledge this disparity in understanding a supposedly “common” language, get upset and angry over misunderstandings, assume others are duplicitous, and yet somehow assume that a government can make it all ok.

        1. English in particular uses one word for love, generally, whereas plenty of other languages use multiple words to be more descriptive. But at the same time, English can be very precise if you have a large vocabulary. The problem is that not many people do have a large vocabulary, and they think you’re an ‘elitist prick’ if you use a four syllable word they don’t know the meaning of. Just ask Tony.

        2. I’d think that a Eugene Debs kind of socialist ought to be *especially* aware of the real danger in letting government steal and lock people up, given what Woodrow Wilson did to Comrade Debs.

  5. According to the Supreme Court’s “dual sovereignty” doctrine, this sort of serial prosecution does not violate the Fifth Amendment’s ban on double jeopardy: Although the underlying actions may be the same in both cases, there are two distinct offenses defined by two distinct governments.

    Frankly I agree. It’s amazing how many blatantly anti-constitutional actions the government takes and no one bats an eye.

    I even agree with the concept of jury nullification, even though this particular example is the exact type that makes me second guess it.

    1. I doubt nullification consciously or even unconsciously had anything to do with it how the jury reached its verdict.

      More likely the claim of “I smelled weed” and “I’m armed” fit what the jury believed would cause a ‘reasonable cop’ to believe Castile was an imminent threat.

      1. Maybe so but it could be interpreted as jury nullification since that is effectively what they did. Certainly the fact that it was a cop is probably the reason why they decided to do so, but the reason doesn’t change the action itself.

        1. Haven’t some of the jurors explained why they reached the verdict they did? If I’m remebering correctly, I heard at least one saying that they believed that the cop was legitimately scared for his life. If that’s the case, I wouldn’t call it “nullification”. Isn’t nullification when the jury believes that according to the letter of the law the defendant is guilty, but that it would be inappropriate or unjust to convict.

          Of course, to really know, you’d need to be able to know the jurors’ minds, which isn’t really possible.

          1. Perhaps, although the idea that an officer would ‘fear for his life’ given the circumstances is a bizarre argument to make.

            I’m not entirely convinced that it raises itself to jury nullification, but one could make the argument.

            I suspect that Dave is correct in that I don’t think the jury was thinking about nullification, but were instead just giving the cop every benefit of every doubt conceivable even while that officer should have absolutely known better. Somehow, his gross negligence and incompetence became his defense in that ‘I was scared, so I shot him’.

            Well, why were you scared officer? The smell of pot? No, it wasn’t that. It was that the perp was black and you thought he was a dumb black criminal who just told you he had a gun. Idjit.

            1. I think that there should probably be another category of juries deliberately deciding cases contrary to what the law says they should besides nullification. You could put juries that refused to convict whites for murdering uppity black people in the same category. Though I suppose that from the point of view of a hardcore racist, maybe that’s nullification too.

  6. Although it obviously violates the plain letter of the 5th amendment, it could be done under different charges, ie violation of civil rights instead of murder/manslaughter. I still think it’s a violation, but that’s the way to weasel out of it.

    1. woops, 6th amendment*

      1. Do0h! 5th*

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