NJ citizens allowed to defend themselves against police brutality, courts rule
NEWARK — A drug dealer who was sentenced to nine years in prison after a jury convicted him of resisting arrest will get a new trial.
Darnell Reed was arrested April 1, 2013, by two city police officers, who beat him to a bloody pulp after a traffic stop.
A jury later found him not guilty of seven drug and other related charges, and found him guilty of just a single charge: resisting arrest.
But an appellate court panel on Thursday ruled that Reed was denied a fair trial because the judge did not instruct the jury to consider whether Reed was justified in defending himself against police brutality.
The decision said the evidence “supported a finding that the officers used unnecessary and excessive force” and that the jury should have been instructed on the self-defense charge.
The appellate decision rests on decades of court precedence, including a 1970 state Supreme Court case that outlined the rights of citizens to defend themselves against police brutality.
“If in effectuating the arrest or the temporary detention the officers employs excessive and unnecessary force, the citizen may respond or counter with the use of reasonable force to protect himself, and if in doing so the officer is injured no criminal offense has been committed,” the court said in State v. Mulvihill.
Courts have pointed out that there are limited circumstances in which people may fight back or resist.
A citizen is not allowed to resist arrest just because he or she believes the arrest is unlawful or mistaken. The time and place to fight that is later in court.
The New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union instructs people to "remain calm" and not touch officers.
"Don’t resist, even if you’re innocent or if you think the police or ICE are acting unfairly or unlawfully," the advocacy group says in one of its pamphlets.
The ruling also doesn't mean that police can never use force. On the contrary, the courts have said that police have the “duty” to use force when someone is resisting arrest.
But if police go overboard, a citizen can defend himself as long as he or she does not use more force than the officers.
A citizen also “loses his privilege of self-defense if he knows that if he submits to the officer, the officer’s excessive use of force will cease," Thursday's decision says.
Previous rulings held that the self-defense instruction to the jury is required even when not requested by a defense attorney.
Recent news reports have put police use of force in the spotlight in the state.
Last month, a video that appears to show a Wildwood police officer punching a man on the street prompted an investigation by the Cape May County Prosecutor's Office.
Also last month, prosecutors in Middlesex County filed criminal charges against a Carteret cop who punched a 16-year-old boy in the face after authorities say the teen had surrendered.
In March, a Morris County corrections officer lost her job after pleading guilty to assault and admitting she used excessive force on a juvenile inmate.
Meanwhile, municipalities pay out tens of thousands of dollars every year to settle excessive-force lawsuits. Recently, Bloomfield paid $243,250 to settle a lawsuit involving one of two officers who were sentenced to prison after lying about the use of force during a traffic stop.
Lawmakers and advocates believe that police departments should not be allowed to investigate excessive force complaints against their colleagues because internal affairs investigations hardly ever find fault with an officer's use of force.
The use of fatal force, such as firing a service weapon, by municipal police officers are investigated by county prosecutors or, in the case of the State Police, by the Attorney General's Office.
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In the Newark case, police say Reed was behind the wheel of a car stopped on North Munn Avenue speaking to a "black male" on the street.
The officers — identified in the appellate decision as Louis Weber and Manuel Souto — were dressed in plainclothes and were in an unmarked car.
They said someone yelled a code word to warn about police in the area, and Reed drove "erratically" away.
After they pulled Reed over, the cops said they saw him holding a “brick” of heroin. After they asked him to get out of the car, they said he dropped the drugs and ran away.
The cops repeatedly struck Reed's ribs and threw him to the ground. His face was left bloodied and swollen and his blood covered the ground. The appellate decision says more than 10 of his dreadlocks “were forcibly ripped from his scalp.” Reed had to be hospitalized and still suffers from pain in his ribcage.
Reed, 33, has a history of convictions for drug and violent offenses dating back to when he was at least 18 years old. The appellate decision does not say whether the cops who arrested him knew who he was.
The appellate decision cast doubt on the cops' testimony.
“It is likely that the jury found aspects of the testimony of the State’s witnesses to be less than credible. Given these circumstances, the evidence of guilt can hardly be characterized as overwhelming.”
Reed was represented in his appeal by a public defender.
He is also serving a four-year sentence for a drug offense committed a year after the 2013 arrest. But without the resisting arrest conviction, he would be eligible for parole this year.
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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