Juris Doctor Candidate, 2017
Valparaiso University Law
Remember the saying “you do the crime, you do the time”? But what if the sentence does not fit the crime? Judge Posner wrote the opinion for a three-judge panel that questioned the amount of time given for a crime committed in United States v. Smith .
Terry Joe Smith, a police office in Putnam County, Indiana was convicted and charged in federal court for violating 18 U.S.C. § 242 , which deprives a person of rights under color of law. Smith deprived two people of their constitutional rights not to be subject to intentional use of unreasonable and excessive force.
In September, Officer Smith along with other officers set out to arrest Cletis Warren whom an arrest warrants was outstanding. Before being arrested, Warren exited his vehicle and jumped into the bed of his truck. Several officers got him out from the bed of the truck and handed him down to officers on the ground. The officers gained control of Warren. Smith punched Warren, while he was handcuffed, in the face making a sound of a tomato hitting a concrete wall. Warren’s face immediately swelled and bled extensively and was carried off in an ambulance to hospital. Smith stated to another officer “I guarantee I broke that [vulgar language] nose and he deserved it”
This was not officer Smith’s only incident of using excessive force. Several months later the officers were summoned to a domestic dispute. Smith handcuffed the man involved, Jeffery Land, and escorted him to the car. Smith raised Land in the air with Land’s body horizontal to the ground dropped him, and drove his knee into Land’s sternum causing him to defecate. He later bragged about the event that happened.
Fed. R. Evid. 701 permitted the police officers to testify at trial. Officer Smith was convicted for violating Warrens and Lands rights. The court found that the amount of force used was unjustified because neither Warren nor Land resisted arrest. Smith was only given 14 months for both situations, which was less than half the bottom of the range. The Judge recognized that Smith used his official position to commit civil rights abuse, and there were no excuses for abusing people who were in handcuffs. The judge, however, gave smith a light sentence because the judge believed if Smith could control his anger, there was little risk of re-offense.
This is a perplexing case. In similar and less offensive cases, police officers received 27 to 208 months in prison. Yet this case questions the very standards of police officers when they wrongly use their status as a police officer. The court system gives people more time for brutality against dogs. Should a person with a police badge be treated differently for brutality against human beings? Police officers are like regular people and should be treated as such when they abuse their duty to apply force to criminals.
The Seventh Circuit ruled that imposing a sentence contingent on if officer Smith could control his anger the risk of reoffending would be slight, was no reason for a light sentence. A sentence that is dramatically far, or farther below the bottom of the range is not said to unreasonable, but the further down the judge goes the more important it is that he gives cogent reasons for rejecting the thinking of the Sentencing Commission. The judged imposed the standard conditions of supervised release without stating the conditions in the hearing was also an error. The entire sentence must have been given orally. The case was remanded for full resentencing. Did the Seventh Circuit go far enough or not?