As outrage over the shooting of Michael Brown roils on, many are facing the all-too-real fear that the case will never see justice, even if it turns out the shooting was entirely unjustified. But one federal appeals court last week took a remarkable stand against leniency for police accountability. In a unanimous ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held that 20 months in prison was not enough for a former DesMoines police officer who brutally beat a couple on their way home from the movies.
Erin Evans and Octavius Bonds were driving home from a date at the movies in 2008 when they were pulled over for failure to yield to an emergency vehicle. From the start, then-officer Mersed Dautovic and his fellow white officer approached the young African American couple with hostility. When Evans, then 21, rolled down her window, Dautovic flung the door open, asking “Are you from America?” and if she was stupid. As a now-flustered Evans attempted to find the appropriate papers in her glove compartment, a second officer ordered her to get out of the car or be pepper sprayed.
What ensued from there was a chain of violence in which Evans was dragged from the car, flung onto the hood of the car and then onto the ground as she screamed for help. When Bonds, then 25, heard her screaming and tried to get out of the car, he was doused with pepper spray continuously, even when he tried to turn his face away from the officer. Bonds eventually grabbed Dautovic’s hand to resist, and then remembers being hit in the back of the head before he lost consciousness. When he awoke again, officers were standing over him with batons, beating him repeatedly, even as he lay in the fetal position and then possibly unconscious.
In the course of this beating, Bonds sustained a broken forearm, a split in his scalp that required seven stitches, a broken hand “so bad” that “two bones protruded through his skin” and bruises covering his body. Officers placed him face down on the road and continued to beat him, in what one witness called the motions of chopping wood. Others testified that as the officers waited for an ambulance, they left Bonds face-down on the road near the centerline, as other drivers had to swerve onto the road’s median so they didn’t run over Bonds’ head.
After all of this, Bonds and Evans were arrested and charged with interfering with and assaulting officers. Dautovic lied in both the police report and in the testimony at their trial, so their story could have ended there, as many others likely have.
But a jury acquitted Bonds and Evans of all the charges against them. Dautovic, on the other hand, was charged and found guilty both of obstructing justice and excessive force. The trial court judge said, “These were just young people coming home from the movies. They did not deserve what happened.”
He noted that although Dautovic was in many ways a good member of his community, he showed no remorse for what he had done. Dautovic was sentenced by that judge to 20 months in jail, even though the guidelines that federal judges generally use to calculate sentences called for a sentence of between 151 and 188 months in jail.
In last week’s ruling, a federal appeals court panel took the extraordinary step of holding that Dautovic’s sentence was not long enough. “Dautovic’s offense conduct was egregious,” wrote Judge Roger Wollman, a Reagan appointee.
Under the federal sentencing guidelines, such abuse of power by officers acting under the “color of law” is subject to especially harsh punishment, particularly where they do so using a dangerous weapon and later attempt to conceal their actions by committing perjury.
But as sentencing expert Doug Berman noted, it is rare for a federal appeals court to overturn the decisions of a trial court judge in a case like this one. Add that to the fact that police officers are rarely held accountable to begin with and this case stands as a rare example of how police who abuse the sanctity of their jobs could be punished.
Even in this case, things didn’t go entirely against Dautovic. Dautovic was initially fired for the beating, but in December 2010, the decision to fire him was overturned by the Civil Service Commission — and with the strong backing of local police union leaders. The commission chairman said he believed Dautovic’s story that Bonds was the aggressor. Ultimately, the reinstatement appeal became irrelevant when he was sent to prison.
But available statistics on police accountability suggest siding with the police is the norm, not the exception. One analysis by the Philadelphia Inquirer in the mid-1990s found that punishment imposed on officers by the police department was reversed or reduced nearly two-thirds of the time after going to arbitration.