A Beating is Painful 1st Says, Upholds Excessive Force Conviction

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on May 11, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The First Circuit, in an opinion by former Supreme Court Justice Souter, upheld a Massachusetts police officer's excessive force conviction stemming from an assault on an arrestee. Shawn Coughlin, a cop in Plymouth, Massachusetts -- yes, the Plymouth of Plymouth Rock fame -- was sentenced to a year and a day in prison after beating a handcuffed arrestee in a holding cell and falsifying records to impede the federal investigation.

On appeal, Coughlin claimed that there was insufficient evidence that his actions, striking the arrestee in the head and kneeing him in the torso, resulted in bodily injury. Not so, said the First Circuit. If it looks like a beating and sounds like a beating, it probably feels like one too -- and that's enough for a jury to decided that there was bodily injury.

That Sounds Like It Hurt

Coughlin made the news in late 2011, after video emerged of him beating a handcuffed arrestee. Eventually, he was charged with deprivation of rights under color of law for the assault. Under that law, if the deprivation results in bodily injury, the crime becomes a felony punishable by up to ten years in prison. The jury could not have reasonably found that Coughlin's victim suffered bodily injury, Coughlin argued, because arrestee did not testify at trial. Nor did he report an injury, or cry out in pain during the incident.

At trial, federal prosecutors focused their case around video of the assault, as well as testimony from a use-of-force expert and other officers who said Coughlin hit the victim. The video prosecutors presented shows Coughlin lunging across a police holding cell at a restrained arrestee -- presumably in response to something the man said. As Coughlin and two other officers move the man from the bench to a corner of the cell, Coughlin strikes him in the head and knees him in the torso.

Bodily Injury is Broadly Defined

Unfortunately for Coughlin, the First Circuit reads bodily injury broadly, to include physical pain, abrasions, bruises and cuts, or even any physical pain "no matter how temporary." There's plenty of evidence of that in the video, the First Circuit held. The jury is free to infer that pain results from being hit, even if the victim himself did not testify.

Similarly, the district court did not error when instructing the jury on an officer's reasonable use of force. Coughlin had wanted the court to include language about an officer's "split-second judgments" in its jury instructions, but "he is not entitled to his preferred phrasing," the court held, since the instructions were legally correct.

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