Officers involved in Randy Cox case face criminal charges; New Haven invokes immunity
New Haven, cops involved claim government, qualified immunity while also alleging that Cox was contributorily negligent in his own paralysis on June 19.
Yash Roy, Contributing Photographer
On Monday, arrest warrants for reckless endangerment in the second degree and cruelty to person — both misdemeanors — were issued against five New Haven Police Department officers for their actions during the arrest of Randy Cox on June 19.
New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker announced at a midday press conference with NHPD Chief Karl Jacobson and the city’s Corporation Counsel Patricia King that all five officers — Sergeant Betsy Segui and Officers Oscar Diaz, Ronald Pressley, Jocelyn Lavandier and Luis Rivera — had turned themselves over to state police in Westport that morning.
But Elicker also drew criticism on Monday — namely from the Connecticut branches of the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — for the city’s decision to invoke governmental immunity and contributory negligence in response to the $100 million civil lawsuit filed by Cox against the city and the five officers involved.
“Based on today’s arrests, it’s clear that the state’s attorney believes that there’s probable cause that the actions of these officers violated state criminal laws,” Elicker said at the press conference. “I’m glad to see the process move forward to ensure that justice is served.”
Cox was paralyzed after being arrested on June 19 by NHPD. Officer Diaz placed Cox into the back of an NHPD transport vehicle that did not have seatbelts and proceeded to drive through the city at 11 miles over the speed limit. After the van made a hard stop in front of Yale’s Schwarzman Center, Cox can be heard on NHPD footage saying that his neck was broken and he could not move.
Diaz then called for medical support. Instead of waiting for paramedics to arrive at the scene, Diaz violated NHPD policy by continuing to drive towards central booking at NHPD headquarters on 1 Union Avenue.
The four other officers implicated were at NHPD headquarters and were involved in the decision to forcibly remove Cox from the transport vehicle and put him in a holding cell.
Cops may face up to 18 months in jail under criminal charges; NHPD Internal Affairs investigation restarts
The two misdemeanor charges come on the heels of a five-month investigation led by the Connecticut State Police. The state police concluded their investigation in early October and turned over their findings to Jack Doyle, State’s Attorney for the Judicial District of New Haven.
Doyle filed the arrest warrants in New Haven’s Superior Court last Tuesday, and a judge approved the warrants last Wednesday. The warrants were served Monday morning to the officers involved in the case.
The reckless endangerment charge comes with a prison time of up to six months while cruelty to person has a one-year prison sentence.
After being processed, the five officers posted $25,000 bonds each and were released on the expectation that they appear for their first court appearance on Dec. 8 in New Haven’s Superior Court.
NAACP Connecticut President Scot X. Esdaile added that Monday’s decision to arrest the officers is an important first step in justice for Cox but added that the potential jail time in the case pales in comparison to the lifetime of paralysis Cox faces.
“Elicker’s talking out of both sides of his mouth,” Esdaile told the News. “You can’t publicly say that you want justice for Randy and that you want to help him, but in court try to blame him for his own paralysis and claim immunity. Elicker keeps proving to us that he can’t be trusted to do justice for Randy.”
Jorge Camacho LAW ’10, Yale Law School clinical lecturer and policy director of the Justice Collaboratory, told the News that in situations involving police it is generally more difficult to bring stronger charges like assault and battery.
These more serious charges require the prosecutor to prove that officers were acting with malicious intent.
“We’re pleased to see the State’s Attorney’s Office and the criminal justice system at work,” Cox’s attorney, R.J. Weber, told reporters after the city’s press conference. “What’s happened here today is never going to change the fact that Randy Cox is paralyzed from the neck down, and that his life since June 19, since Juneteenth of 2022, has been irreparably altered.”
When asked if he thought that the charges were appropriate, Weber said that he respected the State’s Attorney’s decision and that it was not for him to say what charges should be.
While the state was investigating the incident, the city placed its own internal affairs investigation on hold. Now that the state investigation has concluded and charges have been filed, a NHPD internal affairs investigation will resume.
The investigation could end in the termination of employment for the five officers in NHPD, but the final outcome remains unclear. Jacobson told the News that his department will work to “expeditiously” carry out its investigation.
“You’re never happy when a police officer is arrested,” Jacobson told the News. “But the bottom line is to be transparent and accountable. And I believe that this is part of the process, and we need to move forward with our investigation. You cannot treat people the way Mr. Cox was treated. And we’ve said that since the beginning.”
When asked about how the arrests of the officers are affecting other officers working in New Haven, Jacobson said that the department has put more training and accountability mechanisms in place since the Cox incident to ensure that what happened to Cox would not happen again.
He added that the charges against the officers was just “another way of saying if you do your job and you do the right thing then you will be fine.”
Cox’s case has drawn national attention with civil rights attorney Ben Crump — who represented George Floyd and Breonna Taylor — joining the case against the city and police officers.
Crump said that the charges were “an important first step towards accountability” in an email to the news, and he vowed to continue fighting for justice for Cox on the civil side.
City and cops claim government immunity and argue Cox was contributorily negligent in his own paralysis.
Last Monday, the City of New Haven and four of the five officers involved in the case filed their answers and affirmative defenses to Cox’s $100 million civil claim.
The answers and affirmative defenses are an early step in the civil suit. Answers and affirmative defenses are “signposting” by the defendants, according to Camacho, indicating potential arguments that the city and officers might use if parties do not settle and instead move to a jury trial.
The city has invoked governmental immunity and also said that Cox was contributorily negligent in his own paralysis.
Governmental immunity is a state law doctrine in Connecticut, ACLU Connecticut legal director Dan Barrett told the News. Municipalities have divided government action into two categories: ministerial and governmental or discretionary actions.
Ministerial actions are those that are explicitly laid out in regulation or statute, whereas governmental actions are choices that are up to the discretion of the government official.
“There’s virtually no law in Connecticut that explains how a government official should do their job,” Barrett explained. “This is partially because the legislature has better things to do with their time and partially because it’s a fool’s errand.”
Barrett explained that the vast majority of governmental actions to enforce or uphold the law are done at the discretion of government officials, because it would be difficult to lay out step by step the responsibilities and actions a government official might take. Thus, the city can claim that since the officers involved in Cox’s paralyzation were not following explicitly laid out governmental regulations but were instead using their own discretion, the city is not liable for the harm done to Cox.
“You can read the general statutes from cover to cover, and you will never find laws on how to transport somebody in custody because in their view, they should have discretion on how to do their job, and thus should be immune from any issues that arise, which is quite silly,” Barrett told the News.
Barrett explained that government immunity has traditionally been a firewall for municipalities to avoid responsibility in civil claims.
“On a matter of principle, why would the city invoke the immunity doctrine which would get them entirely off the hook while saying they want justice for Cox?” Barrett added.
Segui’s answers and affirmative defense lay out the most explicit contributory negligence claim. She argues that Cox failed to act as a reasonable, prudent person under the circumstances, that he failed to comply with lawful commands of officers and that he actively interfered with the investigation conducted.
Segui does not provide specific instances to prove her claim and her attorney did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the News.
Camacho told the News that if the officers are making this claim, they plan on providing evidence of some specific instance or behavior in which Cox failed to to take a precaution on his part.
Barrett explained that from his understanding of the facts of the case, it seems that the officers and city are arguing that if Cox had not acted in a manner that would have led to his arrest, then he would not have been injured, thus making him partially liable for his own injury.
“Police like to remove themselves from the narrative when someone is injured,” Barrett told the News. “But, they’re skipping over the part where they were required to use adult judgment and discretion, like not handcuffing a guy in the back of a bare police van and then driving the way they did.”
Diaz, Pressely and Segui invoke qualified immunity
Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine developed in case law across the US in the last 60 years, according to Camacho.
“In the Looney Tunes world of the last 20 to 25 years, courts that are extremely solicitous towards police have decided that they can collapse into a vanishing point liability unless the exact same type of brutality happened to another person and was reported, and a court took action on [it],” Barrett told the News.
When qualified immunity is invoked, the cops are arguing that they are shielded from liability because there is no clear precedent of constitutional violation — the lack of precedence means that they did not know they were violating the constitution in their conduct with Cox and were simply conducting their government duty in good conscience.
Camacho explained that it is very easy to “exploit small variations in cases” to avoid liability even where “there is broad recognition of violation of a person’s rights.”
For Cox to prove liability in this situation, he must prove that there was a clear precedent or instance where another person was injured in the exact same circumstance and there was a ruling on that case in the 2nd circuit, the judicial circuit Connecticut is located.
Barrett explained that qualified immunity was created to protect competent government officials from liability.
“In situations like Randy Cox, it’s difficult to understand how one can be less competent than placing somebody without the use of their hands or arms in the back of a police vehicle without a seatbelt and driving and then acting as they did,” Barrett added.
Barrett added that a frequent work-around of qualified immunity is proving that the conduct of the officers was so egregious that any reasonable person can see that it is a constitutional violation.
NAACP, ACLU criticize Elicker, cops for defenses raised.
When asked why the city filed claims to limit civil responsibility in the case, Elicker said on Monday that the city had to comply with the procedure set out by the city’s insurance providers.
He also explained that the city has “an obligation” to protect itself and set out potential legal defense that might be invoked if a settlement is not reached and a jury trial is required.
Elicker further emphasized that he still hopes to settle the matter without a trial, meaning that none of the defenses laid out would be invoked.
“It’s pretty unseemly for government employees, and a government entity to even lay claim to something this barbaric,” Barrett told the News. “So, while defendants like to paint this as kind of a bloodless transaction, all they’re doing is protecting their rights. It’s fair game for the public to ask why it’s appropriate to even inject something like qualified immunity into this decision to this litigation.”
Randy Cox was paralyzed on Juneteenth, a day celebrating the emancipation of enslaved people.