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.
My thoughts – Badges Don’t Grant Extra Rights…
Except when they do.