On August 5, 2012, two Springettsbury Township police officers confronted 57 year old Steven Landis, who was wanted for misdemeanor domestic violence charges, stemming from an incident earlier in the day. Officer Chad Moyer claimed that when Landis failed to put his hands behind his back, Moyer took Landis to the ground with a leg sweep, causing Landis to land on his stomach. When Landis continued to refuse to put his hands behind his back, Moyer delivered a “compliance strike,” to Landis’ left side, resulting in five broken ribs. For good measure, Officer William Polizzotto then stunned Landis in the buttocks with a Taser, before Landis was cuffed, and ultimately charged with resisting arrest.
According to Judge Richard Renn of the York County Court of Common Pleas, there was simply no evidence supporting a charge of resisting arrest. After repeatedly watching a video recording of the incident, Judge Renn ruled that Landis had no time to comply with Officer Moyer’s commands, and that Landis made no attempt to strike or kick the officers. This essentially means that Officer Moyer assaulted Landis during the arrest, when he may have been able to peacefully arrest Landis without incident. Thus, Judge Renn found Landis not guilty of resisting arrest following a bench trial.
When police unjustifiably use excessive force, they leave themselves open to both discipline from their department, as well as making themselves and the department open to a law suit by a criminal defendant, who has now become a potential civil plaintiff. A common police strategy is to file a bogus “cover charge” in order to justify their unnecessary use of force. The classic cover charge is resisting arrest. Historically, the police have been able to get away with bogus resisting arrest charges, because they will almost always be found to be more credible that the defendant they assaulted. That is unless there happens to be a video of the incident.
I strongly suspect that had there been no video of this beat down, Mr. Landis would have taken a packaged plea agreement encompassing both the domestic violence charges of which he was factually guilty, as well as the resisting arrest charge of which he was factually innocent. This would have effectively precluded Landis from having any viable civil claims against the police, however, with this key video evidence; Mr. Landis is able to move forward with a federal law suit, alleging violation of his civil rights.
Fortunately, the vast majority of police officers follow proper procedures, and use force only when it is authorized. Officers are trained to defuse tense situations, and calm down agitated, drunk and/ or mentally ill people, and that is exactly what most of them do. Incidents like the Landis case, however, present a classic example of a few rotten apples unfairly spoiling the whole bunch. Police brutality cannot be tolerated in a modern, constitutional democracy, where police are supposed to protect the rights of citizens, rather than acting as instruments of oppression. That is why York County District Attorney Tom Kearney must now decide whether the officers themselves should face their own criminal charges.
Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense attorney in State College, Pennsylvania. He limits his practice to criminal law. http://www.mattmlaw.com/Criminal-Defense-Overview/