Anyone who has regularly watched television news reports in Connecticut over the past year has likely seen the footage of former Meriden police officer Even Cossette pushing a defendant into his jail cell with such force that the man fell, hitting the back of his head on a concrete bench.
Pedro Temich was knocked unconscious and taken to the hospital where he was diagnosed with a fractured skull. It took 12 staples to close the 12-centimeter gash in the back of his head.
Cossette was sentenced to 14 months in prison by a federal judge last week. The judge could have handed him an even tougher sentence in the police brutality case — 27 to 33 months — according to federal sentencing guidelines.
Nevertheless, Cossette’s criminal defense lawyer still thinks the sentence was excessive and many other defense lawyers agree. Others, though, remain hopeful this case will serve a warning to other “bad cops.”
“It is hard to reconcile [Cossette] will have to serve time in jail when the person who was involved in this case who broke several laws never spent a day in jail,” attorney Raymond Hassett, of Hassett & George in Simsbury, told one reporter after the sentencing. Hassett requested home confinement and community service as a sentence for his client.
Hugh Keefe, of Lynch, Traub, Keefe & Errante in New Haven, says he’s represented more cops in criminal and civil cases than any other practicing lawyer in the state. Even though the sentencing guidelines recommend even more prison time, Keefe believes U.S. District Court Judge Janet Bond Arterton’s sentence of 14 months was still unnecessary.
“I do think that his sentence was excessively long. In fact, I don’t think he needed incarceration at all,” said Keefe. “I think the loss of a man’s pension, the loss of a man’s job, the loss of a man’s identity is more than sufficient punishment.
“I think those things are underrated many times by the court and the public,” continued Keefe. “You take away a man’s livelihood… you’ve done a tremendous amount of damage to him. You don’t need another 14 months of incarceration. What’s that going to serve?”
Jonathan J. Einhorn, a federal criminal defense attorney, agrees with Keefe. “The problem is the sentencing guidelines are just unreasonable when you consider all the circumstances of the offense,” said Einhorn. “For instance, in this case the consequences of his convictions will radically change his life whether or not it was 14 months or two months. I think the problem is really that the sentencing commission needs to reconsider a number of its guidelines.”
The United States Sentencing Commission is an independent agency of the federal government’s judicial branch. It recommends sentences for all federal crimes so there is some uniformity across the country. Einhorn explained that judges do not have to abide by the recommendations in the guidelines but they have to consider them.
“The complaint is more with the sentencing commission than with the sentencing judges,” Einhorn added. He said defense lawyers particularly take umbrage with the strict sentencing guidelines on charges for non-violent crimes like fraud or possession of child pornography.
Hit And Run
Cossette, the son of Meriden Police Chief Jeffry Cossette, was convicted in June following a four-day jury trial in U.S. District Court in New Haven of one count of using unreasonable force and one count of obstructing a federal investigation by preparing a false report.
According to evidence at the trial, on May 1, 2010, Cossette and another Meriden police officer responded to a reported hit-and-run accident. After identifying Temich as the driver likely involved in the hit-and-run incident, the officers placed him under arrest. Cossette transported Temich to the Meriden Police Department and escorted what prosecutors described as “a compliant and handcuffed” Temich from the squad car to the holding cell. Inside the holding cell, Cossette firmly shoved a retreating and still handcuffed Temich, causing the head injury.
Afterwards, investigators said Cossette lied about the incident and tried to cover it up. Cossette, noting at sentencing that it was his dream to become a police officer, has said that he shoved Temich when it appeared the suspect was going to head-butt the officer. “I’m a good person who has always wanted to help people,” Cossette told Arterton at the sentencing. “I am not the person portrayed at this trial.”
But Arterton said that “just because you always dreamed of being a police officer doesn’t mean you will be a good cop.”
Prosecutors asked Arterton to sentence Cossette within the federal guidelines of 27 to 33 months. Arterton said she decided to go well below the guidelines because of Cossette’s lack of a criminal record and because time in prison can be more difficult for a police officer.
Cossette is scheduled to surrender and begin serving his sentence in December.
“It is our hope that this prosecution will help to instruct all law enforcement officers how not to conduct themselves, and will fortify the integrity of a profession that is entrusted with protecting our liberties as well as our safety,” acting Connecticut U.S. Attorney Deirdre Daly said in a statement.
Civil lawsuits alleging excessive force against officers are relatively common in Connecticut. An in-depth report by the New Haven Register this spring found more than 60 lawsuits filed against police in New Haven and surrounding towns in the five-year period ending in December 2012. In that same period, the newspaper found, there were 66 such suits in Hartford and 14 against Connecticut State Police.
But the number of times a police officer faces criminal prosecution for use of excessive force is far less. And, though exact statistics are not readily available, it appears that most of those officers found guilty receive lighter sentences than did Cossette.
For instance, back in 2005, another Meriden officer, Brian Lawlor, chased down a car that had been involved in a road rage incident, rammed the suspect’s car, yanked the driver out of the car and beat him with his fists even though the suspect didn’t appear to resist. The incident was captured by a video camera in Lawlor’s cruiser.
Lawlor was fired and prosecuted for third-degree assault, albeit under state law and not federal law. He received a one-year sentence, which was suspended, meaning he effectively was sentenced to probation.
New Haven defense attorney Glenn M. Conway was in the minority of defense attorneys interviewed who believe the 14-month prison term was appropriate. Conway, however, does not think the prison time will deter other cops from similar behavior in the future, even if that was, at least in part, the purpose of the sentence.
“I don’t think it’ll have any impact. I really don’t,” said Conway, noting that the bad cops are so used to crossing the line that they no longer even know where the line is drawn.
“If you polled a dozen criminal defense attorneys, depending on the town they’re in, we know who the bad actors are because we hear it from our clients. I’d imagine if you talked to a Hartford criminal defense attorney, I’m willing to bet you they’d say, ‘Yeah, I know who the bad guys are up here but there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.’”
Temich, the man injured in the Meriden case, has also hired a lawyer and has a pending civil lawsuit in federal court against Cossette. His lawyer, Sally A. Roberts, of New Britain, has two other pending excessive force lawsuits against Cossette.
One of those plaintiffs claims Cossette, during an arrest, kneed him in the face so hard, he too required a trip to the hospital. The other plaintiff claims that during an arrest Cossette shot him with a stun gun several times in the back after he was already handcuffed.
“Police should be held to a higher standard,” said Roberts. “Where more responsibility is given, more is expected. And when police abuse that power, authority and responsibility, they should suffer the consequence.”•