Aside from doing my bit for the First Amendment (your continued support is much appreciated), I've lately been taking a much greater interest in the Fourth Amendment, particularly since a meek mild-mannered mumsy employee of mine was unlawfully seized by an angry small-town cop last year. So I've been chewing over yesterday's Supreme Court ruling. The case began half a decade ago in Bellaire, Texas:
During the early morning hours of New Year's Eve, 2008, police sergeant Jeffrey Cotton fired three bullets at Robert Tolan; one of those bullets hit its target and punctured Tolan's right lung. At the time of the shooting, Tolan was unarmed on his parents' front porch about 15 to 20 feet away from Cotton.
Happy New Year! Auld Lung Syne: That's one acquaintance Mr Tolan won't soon forget.
But it gets better. The only reason Sgt Cotton was emptying his gun into Mr Tolan was because his colleague, Officer Edwards, had mistransposed a digit when taking down Tolan's license plate, which is 696BGK. Instead, Officer Edwards entered into the database 695BGK, which came up stolen.
As Mr Tolan and his cousin exit the vehicle, Officer Edwards draws his gun, orders them to the ground, and accuses them of stealing the car. "That's my car," says Tolan, but complies with the request to lie face down.
It's worth noting that, in other countries with a different policing culture, a gun would not have been drawn and the officer would have asked to see the registration.
Instead, hearing the commotion, Tolan's parents come downstairs in their pajamas and find their son and their nephew lying on the ground with a cop pointing a gun at them. Mrs Tolan explains, "Sir, this is a big mistake. This car is not stolen... That's our car."
Again, in a different policing culture, an officer facing four family members insisting this is a family vehicle might wonder whether it is, as Mrs Tolan suggests, all a mistake - a small mistake, if not yet "a big mistake". And he might ask the lady if she has any proof of that: How long have they had it, where did they buy it, etc.
Instead, he radios for back-up - because in America one heavily armed officer shouldn't have to deal with four unarmed civilians all on his own - and so the small mistake of a transposed number becomes a very big mistake. Sgt Cotton arrives, pistol drawn, and orders Mrs Tolan, a law-abiding person not accused of any crime, to stand against the garage door. She says, "Are you kidding me? We've lived here 15 years. We've never had anything like this happen before."
Three people testified that Sgt Cotton grabbed her arms and slammed her into the garage door with such force that she fell to the ground. Mrs Tolan produced photographic evidence of bruising over her arms and back. Sgt Cotton disputed their testimony and the photographs. Nevertheless, young Tolan did not like seeing his mother assaulted:
Both parties agree that Tolan then exclaimed, from roughly 15 to 20 feet away, 713 F. 3d, at 303, "[G]et your fucking hands off my mom." Record 1928. The parties also agree that Cotton then drew his pistol and fired three shots at Tolan. Tolan and his mother testified that these shots came with no verbal warning. Id., at 2019, 2080. One of the bullets entered Tolan's chest, collapsing his right lung and piercing his liver. While Tolan survived, he suffered a life-altering injury that disrupted his budding professional baseball career and causes him to experience pain on a daily basis.
One strike, he's out.
The District Court found for the coppers, and so did the Fifth Circuit, ruling that "Get your fucking hands off my mom" constituted a "verbal threat" and, from a guy on his knees 15-20 feet away, "an immediate threat to the safety of the officers" - rather than (as we approach Mother's Day) what ought to be the sentiment of any self-respecting young man seeing somebody physically assault his mom.
The Supreme Court has now vacated the Fifth Circuit's decision, and "remanded the case for further proceedings" - because, after being shot for a misentered license plate digit, and after enduring five-and-a-half years of constant pain, what you really want is yet another go-round with a justice system that thinks this is all somehow consistent with routine police procedure.
In a column on the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, Kevin Williamson remarks en passant:
When police were called to a home in Boiling Spring Lakes, N.C., by parents seeking assistance in getting their mentally ill teen-aged son to the hospital for emergency treatment, two officers arrived and began attempting to calm down the agitated young man until a third officer, apparently an impatient one, showed up and ordered them to use their Tasers on the 100-pound teen, who was holding a screwdriver. Unsurprisingly, the tasing did not calm down the young man, who, according to his parents, was suffering from schizophrenia and had failed to take his medication. So he was shot to death by a police officer whose last words before pulling the trigger were: "We don't have time for this."
When I imagine the police officer in question, I don't hear the voice of Dirty Harry — I hear the DMV lady and the clerks at the local IRS office, bloodless, officious little bureaucrats to whom the people they encounter every day are not citizens to be served but objects of contempt and problems to be endured until retirement, as though humanity stopped at the edge of the counter. The bureaucrats do not have life-and-death power over us in most cases, but when they do, they can be counted upon to misuse and abuse that power.
There are "We don't have time for this" stories - ie, we don't have time for the norms of civilized policing - every day of the week. Random example from Boone County, Kentucky. No big deal. Didn't make any big-city papers - unless you count London, England's Daily Mail: Deputy Tyler Brockman shot 19-year-old pre-school teacher Samantha Ramsey dead as she was leaving a party.
No doubt that's consistent with police procedure, too. No doubt she also presented "an immediate threat to the safety of the officers". As I wrote a month ago, after a trooper fired half-a-dozen shots at a septuagenarian veteran reaching for his cane:
York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant assured his officer that he "did the right thing". And so he did - by the book.
That's the trouble. In US law-enforcement culture, it's "the right thing" to shoot some senior reaching for his walking stick, and to shoot a mentally confused hobo, and a nonagenarian who doesn't want to take his pills. It would likewise have been "the right thing" to shoot Mr Harte if he'd been a little too slow dropping to the broadloom in Leawood, Kansas. In what circumstances isn't it "the right thing" to shoot the citizenry?
It would be nice to get a Supreme Court ruling on that one of these days. Mr Tolan lives in daily pain, so he came out ahead of the poor schizophrenic and the pre-school lady, who are both six feet under. If someone shoots up a grade school or a movie theatre, the cable airwaves fill with experts demanding gun control. But every day Americans are shot for no reason other than that armed bureaucrats "don't have time for this". Any chance of a little more gun control there?
As I always say in these circumstances, if you need to shoot a schizophrenic, a teenage partygoer, a lame septuagenarian, a confused hobo, etc, etc, etc, you're doing it wrong. "The book" is the problem. "The book" is what needs to change. Anyone who goes into law enforcement assumes the risk that a traffic stop might turn out to be something more. Mr Tolan, Miss Ramsey and the rest of us should not have to assume any such risk. In routine encounters with law enforcement, a citizen should not have to weigh the likelihood that the officer will decide to shoot him dead. That's about as basic a standard for civilized society as one can muster.
UPDATE! Laura Rosen Cohen:
Why do American police murder young men with Down Syndrome, for the "crime" of being mentally retarded..?
This is not "law enforcement".
This is citizenry being targeted unlawfully by armed police with the backing of American courts!