Convictions in Los Angeles Show Old Laws Retain Power

April 25, 1993|By THOMAS J. SEESS

The Reconstruction-era civil rights laws under which Los Angeles police officers Stacey C. Koon and Laurence M. Powell were convicted for the beating of Rodney King, although originally passed to define and protect the rights of newly-freed slaves, have once again proved to be no mere relics of another age.

One, Section 242 of Title 18 of the United States Code, originally part of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, prohibits violations of a person's civil rights "under color of law," that is, by anyone purporting to act under the authority of law but actually exceeding that authority. In the case of Rodney King, Officers Koon and Powell were convicted of violating his right under the Fourteenth Amendment not to be deprived of his liberty (that is, arrested) without due process of law.

Section 242 has been used mainly in police brutality cases, many in past decades in the South. In the early 1940s, a sheriff, a deputy and a policeman arrested a 30-year-old black man named Robert Hall for the theft of a tire. When they got him, handcuffed and helpless, to the police station, they beat him to death, using fists and a blackjack. They were convicted under Section 242 of depriving Hall, "under color of law," of another civil right: his very life.

At about the same time, another Georgia sheriff and three deputies delivered a group of black people into the hands of a Ku Klux Klan mob. As the mob set upon the blacks, the officers turned their backs and walked away. The sheriff and a deputy were later convicted under the "color of law" statute. This case was a precedent for the principle that police can be convicted for inaction: failure to stop lawless action by others. This was applied to Sergeant Koon in the King case; he was charged for his failure to restrain the lawless acts of the officers under his command.

The other statute under which the Los Angeles policemen were convicted is Section 241 of Title 18 of the United States Code, which prohibits two or more people from conspiring to violate someone's civil rights. Originally part of the Civil Rights Enforcement Act of 1870, this law was aimed at Klan-type mob violence, then prevalent in many parts of the South.

This law was used in a famous case from the civil rights movement: the murder of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman. In June of 1964, they were pursued by several cars in Mississippi, dragged from their own car and shot. Ultimately, seven of the killers, including a deputy sheriff, were convicted under Section 241 of conspiracy to deprive the victims of life without due process of law. Their sentences varied up to 10 years -- the maximum then prescribed in Section 241. But in 1968, Sections 241 and 242 were both amended to provide for sentences up to life imprisonment in cases where death occurred.

By proceeding under Section 241, the government was able to link the seven co-conspirators in a common plan, although it could not show that all seven had actually fired murder weapons. Similarly, even though the government could not show that Sergeant Koon had personally struck Rodney King, it could link him with the actual baton-wielders in a common plan to violate Mr. King's civil rights.

In many federal civil rights cases, there had simply been no state prosecutions. Only through federal action was a modicum of justice afforded to the victims. The Rodney King case was

different; the sate of California had conducted what appeared to be a vigorous and good-faith effort to investigate and prosecute the officers. Is federal prosecution appropriate in cases such as this?

Today, with appalling crime rates frustrating police and citizens alike, police misconduct and brutality remain understandable possibilities. At the same time, if police are charged with misconduct, local judges and juries are reluctant -- as we have seen -- to convict their own officers. And local prosecutors are surely loath to bring actions against the very officers on whom they depend to win convictions.

For these reasons, as the nation continues to struggle to come to grips with the problem of crime, the option of federal prosecutions under the civil rights laws is still needed. As the Rodney King case demonstrated, the federal supervisory role provided by these laws remains a valuable safeguard for the system of law enforcement.

Thomas Seess, a political scientist, has taught at area colleges and writes about constitutional issues.

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