Eric Garner case: Federal prosecutors urge charges in NYC chokehold death, report says

An amateur video recorded Eric Garner being placed in a chokehold by an NYPD officer on July 17, 2014.

CBS News

NEW YORK - Prosecutors at the Department of Justice are urging officials to file federal charges against a New York City police officer in the 2014 death of Eric Garner, according to an administration official familiar with the matter.

The official confirmed to CBS News a report in the New York Times that civil rights prosecutors have recommended charges against Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who held Garner in a chokehold on a Staten Island sidewalk, but that there is disagreement within the DOJ over whether it is a viable case.

Prosecutors recently made the recommendation to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, according to a source who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

Garner, 43, was stopped on July 17, 2014 outside a Staten Island convenience store because police officers believed he was selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. A video shot by an onlooker shows Garner telling the officers to leave him alone and refusing to be handcuffed.

Pantaleo then placed his arm around Garner's neck to take him down. Garner, who had asthma, is heard repeating the phrase "I can't breathe" 11 times before losing consciousness. He was pronounced dead later at a hospital.

According to CBS New York, Pantaleo has been on modified duty with the force since Garner's death.

The case has been in legal limbo for years.  

A New York grand jury declined to file charges against Pantaleo in December 2014, but in 2016 a federal grand jury began hearing evidence regarding whether Garner's civil rights were violated, a source told CBS News at the time.

The decision whether to file charges lies with Rosenstein, but the official said that no decision is expected in the immediate future.

Civil rights prosecutors under former Deputy Attorney General Loretta Lynch felt confident forging ahead with charges against Pantaleo but faced resistance from federal prosecutors in Brooklyn, who were not sure there was enough evidence to bring a case they could win. 

Civil rights activists and other observers have been closely watching how Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a vocal supporter of local law enforcement, will handle the racially charged case. Because of its high-profile nature, Rosenstein must recommend whether to allow prosecutors to move forward with an indictment, the person familiar with the case said. Sessions can also weigh in but has given no indication publicly about where he stands.

The Justice Department did not immediately comment.

Sessions has long said that he won't pursue the kinds of wide-ranging federal investigations of entire police departments that were hallmarks of the Obama administration's approach to reforming troubled local agencies. He maintains the approach diminishes officer morale and can lead to spikes in crime.

But he has also said he will hold individual officers accountable for breaking the law.

Bringing civil rights charges against police officers is rare and challenging in any administration because prosecutors must reach a difficult standard of proof. It requires them to establish that an officer not only acted with excessive force but also willfully violated someone's constitutional rights. Even some career prosecutors familiar with the details of the Garner case acknowledge it would be challenging to secure a conviction, a federal law enforcement official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a pending case.

Jonathan Moore, an attorney for the Garner family, said he had not been informed that charges were recommended but was cautiously optimistic.

"We welcome this if it's true, obviously, but it's long overdue," he said.

But Pantaleo's attorney, Stuart London, said he has not been contacted by Justice Department officials in the last few months. He reiterated that his client maintains he did not violate Garner's rights.

"It has always and continues to be a simple street encounter," London said.

A DOJ spokesman told CBS News that neither the Department nor Rosenstein would comment.

According to CBS New York, in September 2017 the Civilian Complaint Review Board recommended that Pantaleo be disciplined for his actions during Garner's arrest. But a spokesperson told the station that the department was waiting for the DOJ to finish its investigation into the case.