Death of George Floyd: What Is the Police Officer Charged With?

March 9, 2021

By Jill K. Sanders, Esq.

In May of 2020, the United States saw protests and riots after George Floyd died while being arrested by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In a widely-circulated video, as Floyd was on the ground in handcuffs one officer (Derek Chauvin) was seen holding his knee to the back of Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes. Because Floyd was black and Chauvin is white, some have questioned how race was a factor in Floyd’s arrest and death. And Floyd’s death has touched off many conversations regarding police accountability and alleged brutality.

The officers involved with Floyd’s arrest were dismissed from the police force, and each is facing criminal charges related to his death. Now, jury selection has begun as Chauvin goes on trial. The trial is expected to be closely followed throughout the country and has generated a media frenzy. Here, we discuss the charges against Chauvin and the potential penalties.


The Charges Against the Officer

According to the trial court’s most recent docket report (dated March 9, 2021), Chauvin is facing two felony charges: Murder in the Second Degree, and Manslaughter in the Second Degree.

The murder charge against the officer reads:

Whoever … causes the death of a human being, without intent to effect the death of any person, while committing or attempting to commit a felony offense … [is guilty of unintentional murder in the second degree].

And the manslaughter statute charge against the officer reads:

A person who causes the death of another … by the person’s culpable negligence whereby the person creates an unreasonable risk, and consciously takes chances of causing death or great bodily harm to another [is guilty of manslaughter in the second degree].

In sum, the former officer’s trial will come down to questions: Did Chauvin’s actions cause Floyd’s death? Was Chauvin committing a felony at the time? And were Chauvin’s actions reasonable?


How Much Prison Time is the Officer Facing?

On a charge of Murder in the Second Degree, Chauvin is facing up to 40 years in prison. In comparison, Manslaughter in the Second Degree is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

However, those are the maximum sentences. Minnesota uses sentence guidelines, similar to the federal system. For a person with no criminal history, such as the former officer, the presumptive penalty is 12½ years on the murder charge. And the presumptive sentence for the manslaughter charge is four years.

Note that Chauvin may also face federal charges, and an investigation by the US Department of Justice is ongoing.


Issue of the Third-Degree Murder Charge

The officer was originally charged with another felony – Murder in the Third Degree. This charge reads as follows:

Whoever, without intent to effect the death of any person, causes the death of another by perpetrating an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind, without regard for human life, is guilty of murder in the third degree and may be sentenced to imprisonment for not more than 25 years.

However, in October 2020, the charge was dismissed by the judge presiding over the case. Why? The judge held that the charge requires proof that someone’s conduct was “eminently dangerous to others” – meaning more than one person, not just to Floyd.

But why is this an issue? Well, the third-degree murder charge may be easier for the prosecution to prove. Prosecutors would have to show only that Floyd’s death was caused by an act by Chauvin that was clearly dangerous. And that act need not be a felony.

While the judge re-considered the dismissal of this charge, the trial proceeded with only the second-degree murder and manslaughter charges. As such, jury selection in the trial of the former officer began on March 9, 2021.

Update: On March 11, 2021, the trial judge re-instated the charge of Murder in the Third Degree against Chauvin.