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Reform-Minded Prosecutors Face Backlash for Prosecuting Bad Cops

by Sam Rutherford

 

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement spurred by the police-involved killing of George Floyd, citizens across the country elected reform-minded prosecutors who ran on platforms promising accountability for police who break the law and murder defenseless citizens. Conservative politicians, police unions, and the like have responded by calling for and sometimes obtaining the removal of these duly elected representatives from office. And even when the prosecutors don’t lose their jobs, these pressure campaigns have been largely effective at cowing prosecutorial efforts to hold police accountable for misconduct.

            The attack upon Hennepin County, Minnesota Attorney Mary Moriarty is just one recent example. The controversy involving Moriarty began when her office charged State Patrol Trooper Ryan Londregan for shooting and killing 33-year-old Ricky Cobb II on July 31, 2023. Trooper Londregan fired two shots into Cobb’s vehicle during a routine traffic stop after two other troopers at the scene determined that Cobb was wanted on an outstanding misdemeanor charge in another county. Londregan was the only trooper at the scene to pull his sidearm and fire.

Agents from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Investigation (“BCI”) conducted an extensive investigation and determined that Londregan’s use of deadly force was not only a breach of state patrol policy but also a crime. Moriarty’s office then charged Londregan with three felony counts including second-degree felony murder and second-degree negligent manslaughter. Londregan was released on his own recognizance pending trial because Moriarty’s office did not request bail.

            The Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, the union that represents state troopers, wrote Minnesota Governor Tim Walz, asking that he remove Moriarty from the case and assign it to the state Attorney General. The union accused Moriarty’s prosecution of being politically motivated.

Four Republican members of the U.S. Congress from Minnesota followed up in another letter to Walz, expressing “outrage” about the Londregan case. “It is time for us as a nation to stop demonizing law enforcement,” the representatives wrote. And one of them, Michelle Fischbach, has called on Moriarty to resign.

Minnesota Republican state lawmakers have also called for Moriarty’s resignation and demanded that the charges against Londregan be dropped. They accuse Moriarty of coddling criminals and targeting police in a “politically-motivated prosecution.”

It is unclear whether any of these politicians were even familiar with the facts underlying Moriarty’s decision to file charges against Londregan or that the case had been investigated by BCI, a state-level agency completely independent of Moriarty’s office. Rather than being politically motivated, Moriarty’s charging decision seems based on the evidence gathered after a thorough, months-long investigation.

Conversely, the Republican lawmakers’ objections to that charge appear to be nothing more than political pandering to their law-and-order base of voters. One is left wondering why if, as they claim, these lawmakers have such respect for law and order they are unwilling to let Londregan’s case play out in court and instead want to cut off that truthing-finding process before it begins.

The pressure campaign against Moriarty’s office appears to be working. Minnesota Governor Tim Walz, a Democrat, has questioned Moriarty’s charging decision and criticized her use-of-force assessment. The Governor, however, has not yet decided whether he will hand the case over to the state Attorney General.

Moriarty’s office released a statement saying that union officials and conservative politicians were seeking “special treatment” in Londregan’s case and that the police union “is right about one thing – there is a crisis in confidence, but it is not because of attempts at accountability. It is because of well-documented and horrific instances where some officers abused their power and used unauthorized force.”

As this political power struggle was playing out in the press, on April 17, 2024, Cobb’s family filed suit in a Minnesota federal court against Londregan and another officer, Brett Seide, who initiated the traffic stop that lead to Cobb’s death. The suit alleges officers violated Cobb’s constitutional rights by illegally detaining and then killing him.

The pressure applied to Moriarty’s handling of the Londregan prosecution is not unique. Opponents of the criminal justice reform movement that has led to the election of county prosecutors across the country who ran on prosecuting police for killing civilians, ending cash only bail, and curbing prosecution of nonviolent offenses are very explicit in their efforts to remove such prosecuting attorneys – they are prosecuting and jailing the police.

Another recent example played out in Florida, where Republican Governor Ron DeSantis unilaterally removed a prosecutor who indicted a deputy sheriff for shooting a civilian in 2020. In recent years, DeSantis has used his executive powers to remove democratically elected, reform-minded prosecutors like State Attorney Monique Worrell, who was the municipal prosecutor in Orange and Osceola counties. Worrell won a 2020 election by an overwhelming majority against a “law-and-order” opponent. DeSantis removed her from office based on his perception that she wasn’t sending enough people to prison.

According to The Intercept, 17 other states have passed a total of 37 bills that purport to allow state-level government officials to strip power away from local-level duly elected progressive prosecutors.

 

Sources: Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, theintercept.com, apnews.com, kstp.com

           

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