Friday, December 12, 2014

Just "Requiring" Body Cameras is Not Seeing the Whole Picture

Many, including President Obama, have called for police to wear body cameras in the wake of Darren Wilson's killing of Michael Brown.  Others are skeptical, saying we need look no further than the death of Eric Garner to show that not even clear footage of a cop killing an unarmed man is enough to get an indictment in our system.  The criticisms as the relate to the Eric Garner situation are legitimate, and show why body cameras alone are not the solution.  Eric Garner's death shows we need other solutions in tandem with body cameras, like creating single term limits for prosecutors and eliminating qualified immunity in excessive force cases.   But body cameras are an important part of fixing this problem in the future and preventing prosecutors from hiding behind conflicting witness statements (which exist in most cases against civilians, which they have no problem prosecuting) as an excuse for not pressing charges.  But not just any body camera policy will do.  As has been proven by policies regarding recording police interrogations and cop car dashboard cameras, if the policies do not have strong enforcement mechanisms they will be meaningless.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Hands Up, Don't Spray: Peterson v. Kopp

One of the key legal doctrines that makes it nearly impossible to effectively police the police is the doctrine of qualified immunity.  Last week we discussed  Plumhoff v. Rickard, a recent United States Supreme Court Case that upheld this doctrine.  There is another recent case out of the federal 8th Circuit Court of Appeals (Ferguson, along with the rest of Missouri, falls within the 8th Circuit) that deals with this same issue.  This case is called Peterson v. Kopp, and its language and facts show exactly how far qualified immunity has gone. In this case the Court recognized that, even where officers use unreasonable force, qualified immunity can shield them from responsibility for their brutality.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Why We Need Term Limits for Prosecutors

December is police brutality month here at Court Breakdown.  We have been focusing on the laws and mindsets that allow for tragedies like the unpunished death of Eric Garner.  Today, however, I would like to focus on one possible part of the solution:  term limits for prosecutors.  While this simple step does not directly deal with bad cops, it would indirectly do a great deal to increase police officer's criminal accountability.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Victim Blaming

Normally I am not a fan of the phrase "victim blaming."  All too often it is used by well meaning zealous advocates to silence any voice that speaks up for the rights of the accused or who asks reasonable questions about an accuser's version of events.  In some circles a call to reserve judgment or consider someone innocent until proven guilty gets one labeled as an "apologist."  That is wrong.  But there are legitimate cases of "victim blaming," and that sort of victim blaming is wrong.  An example of the difference is this:
  • Actual Victim Blaming:  Believing a woman was "asking" to be sexually assaulted because she wore revealing clothing.
  • Not Victim Blaming:  Choosing not to consider the word of an accuser alone to be proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty and should be punished.  
In the case of  Eric Garner's death we are seeing real and disturbing incidents of actual victim blaming that must be addressed head on.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Revisiting Plumhoff v. Rickard: Police Brutality Goes Unpunished Even When it Goes to Court

We have been discussing police brutality this month.  In order to fully understand the problem of police brutality in America, it is important to understand what our Supreme Court has said about the matter.  After all, they are the ultimate arbiters when it comes to many issues surrounding police brutality, since they are of a constitutional nature.  To that end, its time we examine the United States Supreme Court's (SCOTUS) unanimous decision in Plumhoff v. Rickard.  

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

It's Not Just About Michael Brown, but it Would Still Be Outrageous Even if it Were.

Nationwide, Americans are outraged by a St. Louis County grand jury's decision not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for killing an unarmed teenager named Michael Brown.  Even members of the St. Louis Rams football team have joined protesters by using the now famous "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" hand gesture during this past Sunday's pregame introductions.  Yet an unfortunately large segment of our society still just does not get it.  People and pundits alike continue to complain that protesters have nothing to be upset about because, in their words, Michael Brown was a so-called "thug."  Apparently, in these people's eyes, anyone who may have committed a crime or may have resisted arrest deserves immediate execution without trial or due process, even if unarmed.  Fortunately no legislature in the United States agrees with this heartless and nonsensical point of view, as no state law proscribes the death penalty without trial for the crime of resisting arrest.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Missouri Law Gives Officers too Broad of a License to Kill

Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown, and he will face no legal repercussions for his actions.  Some members of our society are pleased with this result.  Others are outraged.  But while many people have strong opinions on this particular case, most of them are not familiar with the Missouri law that allowed Darren Wilson to shoot Michael Brown to death and face no criminal responsibility.  In Missouri, that law falls under the defense of Justification.  It is a law that gives police officers the right to kill people who are suspected of minor crimes, and it  desperately needs to change.

What This is All About

I have been considering starting this blog for a few weeks, as I have watched the news coverage of the sexual assault allegations leveled against Bill Cosby.  But watching St. Louis, which I still consider my home, being torn to pieces by the circumstances surrounding the killing of Michael Brown finally pushed me over the edge.

How I Came to this Blog

Before this year, I was a practicing criminal attorney.  I believed that the most effective way to improve the serious flaws I saw in our justice system was by working within that system to fight the machine.  Now I understand that it is going to take much more than that--that the general public needs to be involved and needs to understand what really happens in our courts.  Even the most engaged politically active people in our society usually know very little about how our legal system really works.

Where People Get Their Ideas About the Justice System
Regular people make assumptions about how our justice system works based on three things: (1) the limited civic education we receive as kids that tells us how the system is supposed to work, but teaching us little about reality, (2) the scare tactics used by politicians in campaigns to garner support for their particular party, and (3) the blathering of talking heads on cable news and talk radio who label any judge who makes a decision they disagree with as an "activist" rather than delving into the real reasons behind court decisions.  Now, it is my goal to make this space a fourth source of information.

Plans For Moving Ahead
At this stage, this is very much a work in progress.  My hope is to tackle one legal issue a month that is getting coverage in the news and to provide you with a perspective to which you likely have not been exposed.  My intent is to write numerous articles addressing various aspects of each issue.    I want this to be a place for regular people of any political persuasion to get information and to learn.  To that end I want readers to be able to ask questions, and I want to encourage dialogue in the comment section.

The first issue, for the remainder of November and all of December 2014 will be the Michael Brown case specifically, but also allegations of police brutality and how the courts handle those sorts of claims generally.