Civil rights case likely option after Bell verdict

advertisement | advertise on newsday

If the detectives in the Sean Bell case are acquitted on Friday -- the day Judge Arthur Cooperman said he will announce his verdict -- supporters of Bell and his friends said they will ask federal prosecutors to step in and review the case for possible prosecution.

"There is no question in the case of an acquittal the victims will be asking federal prosecutors to take a very serious look at the case," said attorney Sanford Rubenstein on Friday. He is representing Bell's fiancee, Nicole Paultre Bell, as well as Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, who were wounded in the 50-shot barrage by police.

But while civil rights prosecutions over charges of excessive police force have occurred in New York -- the infamous Abner Louima sodomy at the hands of a cop being the best-known example -- such cases are infrequently brought, according to court statistics and legal experts.

The latest data reviewed by Newsday have shown that complaints about police misconduct often fall by the wayside because of insufficient evidence or the fact that no federal law was violated. Federal law has very technical requirements for making such cases, according to experts.

In the Eastern District, which covers Queens -- where the Bell incident took place -- as well as Brooklyn, Staten Island, Nassau and Suffolk, there have been few prosecutions since 2000. This year, federal prison guards were convicted in connection with a videotaped beating of an inmate at the detention center in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Department of Justice data compiled by the nonprofit Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, show that in this decade through Sept. 30, 2007, federal prosecutors in Brooklyn declined to prosecute many of the cases referred to them.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

$relatedItem.caption

A spokesman for Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Benton Campbell declined on Friday to comment on the trends, except to say that the office was monitoring developments in the Bell case.

Civil rights lawyer Ron Kuby said he believes federal prosecutors stay away from bringing indictments against cops because such cases are politically unpopular. The Abner Louima case, in which ex-cop Justin Volpe was convicted of the assault on the Haitian immigrant, is an exception, he said.But a former Brooklyn federal prosecutor disagreed. The real problem, said the prosecutor, who didn't want to be identified, lies in the complex nature of federal civil rights law.

"For federal excessive force cases you really do have to prove a high of intentionality, of willfulness," said the prosecutor. "It's a very hard standard to meet."In the Bell case, detectives Michael Oliver, Gescard Isnora and Marc Cooper face charges that have elements of recklessness or gross negligence, which are different from willful, intentional conduct, the prosecutor said.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

If the Bell case detectives are acquitted, Benefield, Guzman and Paultre Bell may file civil lawsuits seeking compensation and other damages. Such a case is almost certain to be filed regardless of Cooperman's verdict, Rubenstein has said.

You also may be interested in: