The US is still a place where a routine traffic stop can end up in a life-or-death situation.
A Minnesota judge has ruled that there were aggravating factors in the death of George Floyd, paving the way for a longer sentence for Derek Chauvin.
In a ruling released on Wednesday, Judge Peter Cahill found that Chauvin abused his authority as a police officer when he restrained Floyd last year, and that he treated Floyd with particular cruelty.
The ruling came after prosecutors requested a so-called “upward departure”, which calls for severer sentencing than those outlined in state guidelines.
Chauvin was convicted in April of second and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter for pressing his knee against Floyd’s neck as the Black unarmed man said he could not breathe and went motionless.
In their request for upward departure, prosecutors argued that Floyd was particularly vulnerable with his hands cuffed behind his back as he was face-down on the ground.
They noted that Chauvin held his position even after Floyd became unresponsive and officers knew he had no pulse.
Prosecutors also said Chauvin treated Floyd with particular cruelty during the lengthy restraint, saying Chauvin inflicted gratuitous pain and caused psychological distress to Floyd and to bystanders.
Finally, they argued that Chauvin abused his position of authority as a police officer, committed his crime as part of a group of three or more people, and that he pinned Floyd down in the presence of children – including a nine-year-old girl who testified at trial that watching the restraint made her “sad and kind of mad”.
Judge Cahill agreed with all but one of the prosecutors’ arguments. He said prosecutors did not prove that Floyd was particularly vulnerable.
While Chauvin was found guilty of three counts, under Minnesota statutes he will only be sentenced on the most serious charge – second-degree murder.
Before the upward departure ruling, Chauvin would have faced a presumptive sentence of 12-and-a-half years on that count under Minnesota sentencing guidelines and Cahill could have sentenced him to as little as 10 years and eight months or as much as 15 years.
Even with the aggravating factors, legal experts have said Chauvin is unlikely to get more than 30 years when he is sentenced on June 25.
Defence lawyer Eric Nelson disagreed with the ruling, saying that prosecutors did not prove that there were aggravating factors.
He said Chauvin had the legal authority to assist in Floyd’s arrest and was authorised under law to use reasonable force. He also said Floyd was not particularly vulnerable, saying he was a large man who was struggling with officers.
Nelson also argued Floyd was not treated with particular cruelty, saying that there is no evidence that the assault perpetrated by Chauvin involved gratuitous pain that is not usually associated with second-degree murder.
Chauvin has also been indicted on federal charges alleging he violated Floyd’s civil rights, as well as the civil rights of a 14-year-old he restrained in a 2017 arrest.
If convicted on those charges, which were unsealed on Friday, a federal sentence would be served at the same time as Chauvin’s state sentence.
The three other former officers involved in Floyd’s death were also charged with federal civil rights violations. They await trial in state court on aiding and abetting charges.