Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Walter Scott’s Death Is a Tragic Reminder of How Important It Is to Film Police

South Carolina police officer Michael T. Slager is facing a murder charge after footage emerged of him fatally shooting an apparently unarmed man following a traffic stop last Saturday. The disturbing footage not only shows that Slager shot eight rounds at Walter L. Scott while he was fleeing, it also appears to show him planting his Taser next to Scott after he is brought down. The incident is the latest reminder of how important it is to protect the right to film police officers doing their jobs.

The footage, which can be seen below and contains graphic content, clearly contradicts police reports.

According to police reports, Slager fired his Taser at Scott after pursuing him onto a grassy lot after a traffic stop prompted by a broken taillight. The Taser reportedly failed to subdue Scott. Slager reported via radio: “Shots fired and the subject is down. He took my Taser.” Police reports also stated that officers performed CPR and first aid on Scott.

The video, which was captured by an onlooker, begins with Scott fleeing from Slager after what police reports claim was a scuffle over Slager’s Taser. Slager, standing flat-footed, then fires eight rounds at Scott, who falls to the ground roughly 15-20 feet from Slager after the eighth round is fired. The coroner reportedly told one of Scott’s family lawyers that Scott was hit by five times: once in the ear, once in the upper buttocks, and three times in the back.

The video appears to show Taser wires attached to Scott as he flees the encounter. If they are Taser wires, the beginning of the video confirms police reports which claim that Slager’s Taser did not stop Scott.  

However, it is hard to see any of the footage backing up Slager’s claim that “He took my Taser.” Indeed, the video shows that after he handcuffed Scott Slager went back to where the scuffle occurred, picked up an object, and then dropped that object next to Scott. Despite claims made in police reports, the video does not show officers performing CPR on Scott.

One of Slager’s attorneys, who is reportedly “no longer involved” in the case, said earlier this week that Slager felt threatened and believes that he acted appropriately, two claims that will be hard to justify given what the video shows.

The video will undoubtedly play a key role in Slager’s case. According to Justin Bamberg, a South Carolina House representative and one of Scott’s family lawyers, “If there was no video, I do not believe that officer would be in jail.”

Fed Ed, by Every Other Name, Still Smells Rank

With yesterday’s release of a new, Senate, No Child Left Behind revision, there certainly seems to be a serious effort to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, due since 2007. Perhaps the first thing they should do, though, is keep the name simply “Elementary and Secondary Education Act” so I don’t always have to explain that the ESEA is the same as NCLB.  But no: this is the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015, in keeping with the political need to have names no one could possibly oppose. (You want to leave kids behind? You want some kids not to achieve?) That said, while the bill seems to be a step in the right direction, it would still keep us miles from our necessary destination: no federal education control.

The new bill, like the Student Success Act in the House (yup, another loaded name) gets rid of NCLB’s “adequate yearly progress” mandate and the cascade of punishments for schools that fail to meet it, and tries to curb the U.S. Secretary of Education’s ability to coerce states to use specific standards and tests such as the Common Core and related exams. But it would still require states to have uniform standards and tests – sorry, local control – and state accountability plans would have to be approved by the secretary. This approval provision is especially concerning because, despite NCLB giving the secretary no authority to attach conditions to waivers out of its requirements, the Obama administration attached conditions anyway. In other words, we already have concrete experience with an education secretary blatantly exceeding the authority given to him by law. To think a future administration wouldn’t do so again is wishful thinking. Yes, there is a “peer review” process for state plans, and some rules on what a secretary may not require a state to do, but never underestimate the power of regulation-writing to fill in gaps with unexpected power, or future administrations to interpret imprecise wording as expansively as possible.  And the bill calls for states to have “challenging” standards, which certainly seems to require that the feds define what, exactly, “challenging” means. So maybe the worst parts of NCLB are gone, but the biggest danger – rule by executive fiat – remains.

The Walter Scott Case

Yesterday, South Carolina’s Post and Courier released the video of a North Charleston police officer fatally shooting a fleeing man, Walter Scott, in the back. After the mayor’s press conference late yesterday afternoon, the State Law Enforcement Division arrested the officer and charged him with murder. Under Tennessee v. Garner (1985), it is illegal for an officer to shoot a fleeing suspect absent an objectively reasonable fear of danger to the public or himself.

 

Photo via the Post and Courier.

The officer had originally stated that he “felt threatened” before deploying lethal force against the 50-year-old man. The police report also stated that the officer performed CPR on Scott after the shooting, but video shows the officers left him handcuffed and on the ground with no attempt at CPR.

You should read the full story here.

This was cross-posted at PoliceMisconduct.net

Erie County Forced to Hand Over Stingray Documents

A few weeks ago, a New York judge ruled that the Erie County Sheriff’s Office had inappropriately denied a freedom of information request from the NYCLU regarding the office’s use of Stingray cell phone trackers.  The judge ordered the sheriff to release the documents that had been inappropriately withheld.

Yesterday, the sheriff complied and the documents prove exactly what transparency and civil liberties advocates have been arguing: these devices are often deployed in complete secrecy and with no judicial oversight.

Per the NYCLU press release:

The Sheriff’s Office used Stingrays at least 47 times between May 1, 2010, and October 3, 2014, including to assist other law enforcement departments like the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office. It appears that the office only obtained a court order in only one of those 47 circumstances, in October 2014, and even in that case it was not a warrant but a lower level court order (called a “pen register” order). This contradicts what the sheriff said to a local reporter and undermines what he said to the legislature – that this device is being used subject to “judicial review.”

Further, the federal government is directly complicit in this secrecy, forcing law enforcement agencies to sign non-disclosure agreements in exchange for use of the devices.  The agreements forbid participating law enforcement agencies from disclosing the nature of these devices, even to judges and defense attorneys.  The agreement even contains provisions giving the FBI the authority to compel prosecutors to drop criminal cases rather than reveal the Stingray use to the court.

From the non-disclosure agreement:

In addition, the Erie County Sheriff’s Office will, at the request of the FBI, seek dismissal of the case in lieu of using or providing, or allowing others to use or provide, any information concerning the Harris Corporation wirelesss collection equipment/technology, its associated software, operating manuals, and any related documentation (beyond the evidentiary results obtained through the use of the equipment/technology), if using or providing such information would potentially or actually compromise the equipment/technology. This point supposes that the agency has some control or influence of the prosecutorial process.  Where such is not the case, or is limited so as to be inconsequential, it is the FBI’s expectation that the law enforcement agency identify the applicable prosecuting agency, or agenices, for inclusion in this agreement.

This is not just idle boilerplate.  Although that provision of the agreements has until now been redacted, civil liberties advocates have long assumed its existence based on several instances of serious criminal charges being dropped when scrupulous defense attorneys or judges start inquiring into how police were able to locate suspects. Perhaps more troubling, the conditional nature of that provision implies that police and prosecutors can use information gleaned from these devices unless the judge or opposing counsel asks the right questions to expose the Stingray use.  That implication raises a troubling question: how often has evidence from illicit Stingray use been allowed to stand because neither the judge nor the lawyer knew what to look for?

A legitimate justice system requires transparency and accountability.  It requires checks and balances and respect for the rule of law. With every revelation about the widespread and unfettered use of cell site simulators by police, it becomes more clear that this program flies in the face of our cherished principles of justice.

 

Immigration and Equality

Now that a federal judge has enjoined President Obama’s unilateral amnesty, immigration reform will have to be achieved the old-fashioned – and constitutional – way: by compromise with Congress. A grand bargain is not impossible, but it will require a broad re-framing of the issues and a clear sense of what is at stake. For one thing, any such bargain should end, once and for all, governmental discrimination on the basis of race.

Affirmative action and immigration might, at first glance, appear unrelated; in fact, they are profoundly and perversely intertwined. It is often said that anti-immigration sentiment is driven by a fear of competition; Americans are said to fear competing against new immigrants for jobs, for contracts, for educational opportunities. This account leaves out a crucial part of the story: Americans have never lacked competitive spirit or feared a fair fight. What many Americans fear is that these competitions will, in fact, be rigged from the outset. The sad fact is that they are right.

Religious Liberty’s Denouement in Indiana

With the Final Four set to begin in Indianapolis this evening, maybe we can shift our attention from the anti-discrimination protests there that have consumed our attention all week to the games. But maybe not, since protests are expected even at the games. The left just doesn’t know when to stop. That’s the subject of the lead editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal, “Liberal Intolerance, Round II: To stamp out cultural dissent, the left is willing to stomp on religious liberty.” Here’s a sense of what the week’s been like for ordinary Hoosiers:

Take the family-owned pizza parlor in Walkerton, Indiana—population 2,144. A local TV reporter went door-to-door asking restaurants how they would respond if they were asked to cater a gay wedding. The innocents at Memories Pizza, who had never faced the question in daily business, said that they would prefer not to participate in a hypothetical same-sex pizza party ceremony. Cue the national deluge.

They were suddenly converted into the public face of antigay bigotry across cable news and the Internet, and became the target of a social-media mob, as if they somehow screened for sexual orientation at the register. The small business closed amid the torrent, although a crowd-funding counter-reaction supplied tens of thousands of dollars in recompense.

Tens of thousands? The South Bend Tribune reports that the fund stood at $842,000 as of this morning.

Faithful readers of Cato@Liberty know our views on the underlying issue. Indeed, Cato’s amicus brief supporting those now pressing the Supreme Court to prohibit states from discriminating against same-sex marriages has just generated a brief from conservative scholars who direct their arguments entirely against ours: A most unusual move, they must be concerned.

But while we support same-sex marriage, we support religious liberty every bit as much. This week I addressed that issue here and here. And The National Interest has just put up a longer piece of mine that puts the whole freedom of association issue in perspective.