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Federal Officials Reaching for Rarely Used Statute to Charge Cleared Police Officers

A rarely used and difficult to prove civil rights statute may be one of the few remaining options to justify federal prosecutions of the officers who weren’t indicted by grand juries for the deaths of unarmed Black men.

There may be hope to bring charges against the officers if the federal officials can gather enough evidence to prove that they deprived the victims of their constitutional rights under title 18, section 242 of the U.S. code, also known as the “color of law” statute.

The deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford III and, as of Monday, Dontre Hamilton are all under investigation by the Department of Justice, the FBI and local U.S. attorney’s offices.

In each of the four cases, the police officers who killed the men were cleared of the charges against them. Demonstrations in protest of the grand jury decisions have been going on for several weeks and have continued to grow in numbers.

The investigation into Hamilton’s case was announced Monday after the Milwaukee district attorney said that Christopher Manney, the officer who shot Hamilton 14 times during a confrontation in April at a park in Milwaukee, would not face charges.

The “color of law” statute applies to police officers, prison guards and even care providers at public health facilities. The government doesn’t have to prove racial bias in order to get a prosecution in cases involving the death of a victim.

Experts warn that the “color of law” statute rarely gets prosecutions in police shooting cases. William Yeomans, a law professor in Washington, D.C., and a former acting assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Justice Department, told the Guardian that “color of law” prosecutions are harder to prove than other types of deprivation.

“There is always the possibility of a federal prosecution, but I think everyone recognizes it is not the most likely outcome because the standard is very high,” he said. “The government has to show that the officer acted with the specific intent to use more force than was reasonably necessary under the circumstances.”

In Hamilton’s case, the Justice Department is only reviewing the evidence. Reviews and investigations could take months or even years to be completed. The investigation of the 2012 George Zimmerman case (where the neighborhood watch coordinator killed teenager Trayvon Martin), which is being run by the same civil rights division as the four “color of law” cases, is still ongoing.

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