Significant Civil Rights Cases

Minneapolis attorney Robert Bennett discusses some of his most memorable civil rights cases.

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I suppose the first one was Mische v. Sauro, that was kind of the large, big case. That set the groundwork for other big cases in this federal district. That was the case where a police officer had kind of a storied past and had beaten up a St. Thomas hockey player at a New Year’s Eve party. We tried that case in St. Paul and won a big verdict. That was kind of your garden-variety police misconduct of using excessive force. But there have been other cases. We’ve represented a police offer, for example, who we know is Vietnamese and was undercover, was shot by a third party who we never found. He gave chase and was calling out on his police radio for help and the backup arrived and one of the two officers didn’t fire and one of the two officers opened up with some machine gun and shot Dewey six times. So that was a civil rights case we handled involving unlawful use of deadly force. We were lucky enough to represent the family of David Smith last year. David was a 29 year-old African American person with some mental illness issues and he was at the YMCA in downtown Minneapolis, where he was approached by two police officers who got into a fight with him rather than try to deal with him as a mentally ill person. Teased him and ultimately put him in a prone position, handcuffed him behind his back, and then knelt on his back for so long that they mechanically asphyxiated him. It killed him, and we settled with the city for a little over $3 million dollars on that one. That I think shows the plight of the mentally ill in their interactions with the police. I mean it’s a tough job but you have to be very careful not to put people in positions where you can actually kill them. That film is the most frightening ten minutes of film to watch that I’ve ever seen. The guy had a pin camera – an HD pin camera – and filmed the whole thing. You can literally hear this human being dying and hear his agonal breathing, what they call the death rattle. Now if you’ve never heard it before, it’s not like any other human sound you’re ever going to hear. It’s almost – I think the people who had it, that got the tape, the Star Tribune and some of the news outlets, it was too horrible for news. That was the problem. It’s never as far as I’m concerned gotten a full or fair viewing by the public because you would know that people can do worse things to other people than you can imagine. We also dealt with – I think I mentioned it before – the tuberculosis outbreak at the Ramsey County Workhouse, where one inmate was left alone untreated for a long time and 150 people got tuberculosis. That’s probably the most expansive civil rights violation that we’ve seen here in our area for a long time and it was the subject of both a class action settlement and a trial that we won.

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