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Legal Analysts Call Attention to Unusual Charge Against Memphis Officers Who Fatally Beat Tyre Nichols — Kidnapping

Tyre Nichols suffered fatal injuries in a confrontation with Memphis police on Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023. (Memphis Police Department)

Tyre Nichols suffered fatal injuries in a confrontation with Memphis police on Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023.

The legal community is calling attention to an unusual set of criminal charges against the former Memphis cops accused of killing Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black FedEx worker, father, and nature photographer. Body camera footage of Nichols’s fatal beating at the hands of five Black officers was released Friday.

Nichols had been pulled over by police on Jan. 7 for alleged reckless driving. When Nichols tried to run, he was dragged from his car and severely beaten by five Memphis police officers yards from his family’s home. Nichols died three days later from his injuries.

The disturbing videos show officers repeatedly punching and kicking Nichols as well as beating him with a baton. Officers can be heard screaming, “Give me your f—— hands!” and “I’m going to baton the f— out of you!” while Nichols can be heard repeatedly screaming for his mom.

The officers have not only been charged with assault and murder but also with aggravated kidnapping.

The five officers responsible for Nichols’s beating were identified as Tadarrius BeanDemetrius HaleyEmmitt Martin III, Jr., and Justin Smith. Each faces several criminal charges, including second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct, and official oppression. All five former officers are Black.

Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis released a video statement Wednesday denouncing the officers’ actions as “heinous, reckless, and inhumane.” The five officers surrendered to authorities Thursday morning and were booked into the Shelby County Jail. Bond is set at $350,000 for Haley and Martin, and $250,000 for Bean, Mills, and Smith.

Civil rights lawyers and others have zeroed in on the kidnapping charges. Under Tennessee law, kidnapping requires that a person “knowingly removes or confines another unlawfully so as to interfere substantially with the other’s liberty.” The kidnapping charges against the officers may indicate that — at least in the eyes of prosecutors — Nichols’s traffic stop itself had been criminally illegal.

The kidnapping aspect sets the Nichols case apart from other police violence cases such as the death of George Floyd, in which officers were held responsible for their egregious violence, but not for the initial step of detaining Floyd.

“For the district attorney to charge the officers with kidnapping Tyre Nichols during the arrest is such an unusual move that it’s almost astounding, but it likely reflects the fact that the officers had little to no justification to apprehend him in the first place,” said Los Angeles-based civil rights attorney V. James DeSimone, who has brought lawsuits against police departments, in a statement.

One Mississippi news outlet tweeted that the kidnapping charges indicate that “This was NOT a simple traffic stop at all.”

Civil rights activist and lawyer Jo Kaur said in a tweet that the kidnapping charges against the officers are “in some ways more significant than the murder charge.”

Criminal defense attorney Matthew Barhoma told Law&Crime in a statement that the kidnapping charge “makes no sense.”

Barhoma said that because police power to detain individuals is a “core function of their official duties,” that a kidnapping charge “implies these officers acted beyond their duties, holding him when they shouldn’t have, and kidnapping and almost falsely imprisoning him.”

Barhoma noted that the charge seems at odds with the wide latitude given to police, who “are allowed to arrest you, pull you over, or even do a “Terry frisk” – to pat down a suspect the officer believes may be armed and dangerous –  even though they have very diminished probable cause.”

“I expect the counts will look very different after a preliminary hearing,” Barhoma said. “The prosecution would benefit from sticking to their strongest argument, dropping some of these more minute counts and strictly prosecuting on a homicide level.”

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law — a nonpartisan advocacy group formed at the request of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 — called the video of Nichols’s attack a bitter reminder that “we’re still fighting the same battle” as the 30-year-old beating of Rodney King. The Committee called for targeted legislation as the only appropriate response to the epidemic of brutality that victimized Nichols.

“We need lawmakers to honor Tyre Nichols’ by pushing bold, expansive legislation to fundamentally change policing in this country,” the Committee said in a statement. “That starts with Congress passing the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in its strongest form, but must also continue with  transformation at the local level.”

[image via Memphis Police Department]

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Elura is a columnist and trial analyst for Law & Crime. Elura is also a former civil prosecutor for NYC's Administration for Children's Services, the CEO of Lawyer Up, and the author of How To Talk To Your Lawyer and the Legalese-to-English series. Follow Elura on Twitter @elurananos