NYPD 'Chokeholds' Under Fire After Man's Death

By Daniel Taylor, Esq. on July 21, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Police officers' use of chokeholds to subdue resisting suspects is coming under fire after a New York man suspected of illegally selling cigarettes died in a confrontation with NYPD officers.

Video of the July 17 incident appears to show officers putting the man, 43-year-old Eric Garner, in a chokehold in order to take him to the ground, reports The New York Times -- desptite chokeholds being forbidden by NYPD policy.

What led to the fatal incident, and is the use of chokeholds by police officers legal?

Man Accused of Illegal Cigarette Sales

The confrontation between officers and Garner occurred when police attempted to arrest him for allegedly selling so-called "loose" cigarettes. That's when cigarettes bought outside the state are sold individually inside New York City, thus avoiding state and city tobacco taxes.

Garner had been arrested for this more than 30 times, according to The New York Times. Garner had also previously filed a complaint in federal court against police, alleging police misconduct.

Video of the "chokehold" incident shows Garner telling the officers "Every time you see me, you want to harass me, you want to stop me," and "please just leave me alone."

As officers attempt to take down the 340-pound Garner, he can be heard repeatedly saying, "I can't breathe."

Excessive Force?

Police officers are authorized to use reasonable amounts of force to detain a suspect who is resisting arrest. However, the use of excessive force can be an illegal violation of constitutional rights.

The NYPD officially bars any application of force that puts "any pressure to the throat or windpipe, which may prevent or hinder breathing or reduce intake of air." Despite this, there were more than 230 allegations of NYPD officers using chokeholds last year, reports the city's Civilian Complaint Review Board.

The year after the chokehold ban was implemented, an NYPD officer was convicted of using a chokehold on a 29-year-old man playing football outside his mother's house and sentenced to federal prison.

As Garner's relatives come to terms with his death, they may be considering legal action. For example, allegations of excessive force against police can potentially lead to a civil lawsuit under Section 1983 of the U.S. Code.

Under Section 1983, a citizen can sue a government official in federal court for violating his or her constitutional rights. Still, there's a specific process in place to pursue claims against government entities or agents. In Garner's case, his relatives would likely have to file a claim with the city before proceeding with a lawsuit.

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