Officer's civil, state cases loom after federal acquittal

AP News
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Posted: Jan 15, 2016 5:50 PM

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — A north Alabama police officer who was acquitted of using excessive force on an Indian man still faces state and federal charges, but legal experts said the outcome of the civil rights trial will likely influence the approach to the remaining cases.

U.S. District Judge Madeline Haikala on Wednesday granted a motion to acquit Madison police officer Eric Parker, 27, in the civil rights case after his two previous trials ended in hung juries.

Federal prosecutors failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Parker willfully violated the rights of 58-year-old Sureshbhai Patel when he slammed him to the ground during a suspicious person investigation in the Huntsville suburb, Haikala said in her 92-page opinion. Patel was injured in the takedown

Willfulness hinges on a defendant acting with specific intent to deprive someone of a federal right, and intent is based on open defiance or reckless disregard, Haikala wrote. U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance said in a statement that prosecutors had been "fully committed" to pursuing a third trial. Haikala wrote that federal prosecutors were unlikely to be more convincing with a third or fourth jury.

"I think this was an important case for all the police departments around the country," Parker's attorney Robert Tuten said Friday. "Hopefully this will give them some idea for the individual officer and for the various departments how to better handle use of force situations."

Parker has said Patel provoked suspicion during their February encounter by walking away from officers as they tried talking to him, putting his hands in his pockets and resisting during a pat down.

Patel has said through an interpreter that he doesn't speak English and didn't understand Parker's orders. Officials from the Washington-based Hindu American Foundation said Friday that they were disappointed with the judge's decision.

Parker's civil and state cases had been put on hold while the federal criminal case was pending.

"That burden of proof is higher than in a civil case, so it's entirely possible for someone to be acquitted in a criminal matter, but be found civilly liable," said University of Alabama associate law professor Jenny Carroll, whose specialties include criminal defense and criminal procedure.

However, Parker's defense attorney will likely file pretrial motions to dismiss both cases based on the federal acquittal, introduce the acquittal as evidence and argue that Parker was acting in his official duty and is protected from liability, Carroll said.

"With a different type of case in a different jurisdiction I think we have to be careful how we read into it," Tuten said.

Henry Sherrod III, the attorney representing Patel, declined to comment.

A hearing in Parker's misdemeanor assault case in Limestone County is scheduled for Feb. 3, according to court records. Parties in the federal civil suit are ordered to give U.S. District Judge Virginia Emerson Hopkins an update on the status of Parker's state assault case by March 30.

The complaint accuses Parker of illegal seizure, unlawful search, excessive force, assault, false imprisonment and battery. The lawsuit seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, legal fees and more.