Monday, June 17, 2019

There's No Wrong Way To Terrorize a Black Guy in the Eighth Circuit

Last week, the Eighth Circuit released an opinion in Clark v. Clark, a case involving a law-abiding Black gun owner in Missouri. Police responded to claims of gunshots in the vicinity of a Missouri rest stop. On arrival, they encountered Gregory Clark, a Black man sitting a table outside the building. Seeing they were officers, Clark immediately handed over his driver's license, retired military ID, and concealed carry permit, and also informed them he was armed. He was questioned if he had heard any gunfire (he hadn't) and where he was going (Chicago).

Then the police ran his identification (which came back clean). Clark was apparently not wild that the police ran his ID, which he thought was potentially a case of racial profiling, and asked a question gesturing in that direction ("[would you] have done that to anyone else?"). The officer responded poorly, angrily replying "don’t play the race card with me", and returned the identification cards back to Clark.

The police then left Clark, and Clark in turn returned to his vehicle and drove away in the direction of Chicago. The police trailed him, and Clark began to fear for his life. He made a U-turn, and officers continued to follow. After more cop cars began to arrive on the scene, he pulled over to the side of the road and placed both hands outside of the window to show he wasn't holding his gun. Officers nonetheless approached the car with weapons drawn, one pointing his gun at Clark while ordering him out of the car. After a bit more confusion and discussion, it was eventually determined that Clark had committed no crime and done nothing wrong, and he was allowed to leave once more.

The Eighth Circuit, in an opinion by Judge Erickson joined by Judge Colloton, concluded that the entirety of the police conduct -- which culminated, let's recall, in the police pointing their weapon at a Black man who had done absolutely nothing wrong and had seemingly taken every conceivable step to scream out "I am not a threat" -- was wholly lawful.

And that's why I flag this case. In an alarming number of circumstances, there is nothing a Black man can realistically do to avoid having a gun pulled on him by police. He can be entirely law-abiding, forthright about his (legal) gun ownership, compliant with police demands, going out of his way to and keep his hands clear -- doesn't matter. And likewise, he cannot seek to avoid police interactions -- even knowing (apparently accurately) that they put him at risk of having a gun pulled on him for no reason whatsoever. Judge Erickson, for example, argued that both Clark's highway U-turn to avoid the police, and his affirmative decision to put his hands out the window to show that he wasn't holding his gun, were "unusual and may be indicative of guilty conduct."

Chief Judge Smith disagreed -- and it is perhaps not coincidental that Judge Smith is the only African-American Judge on the Eighth Circuit. In his view, while the initial encounter at the rest stop was lawful (and I agree -- while I understand why Clark might have felt aggrieved, he was the only person in the vicinity where gunshots had been reported and he admitted he was carrying a gun), the police response to Clark on the highway was not (Judge Smith ultimately would have found that the officer nonetheless enjoyed qualified immunity).

Put simply, Clark is allowed to not want to interact with the police. African-American men have excellent reason to try to avoid police encounters for fully innocent reasons like "wanting to avoid an elevated chance of having a gun pulled on you" -- as this case well demonstrates. But there's really nothing they can do to avoid it -- including "literally trying to avoid it".

Meanwhile, today the Eighth Circuit en banc dismissed, by 5-4 vote, Dorian Johnson's claims against Ferguson, Missouri and Office Michael Brown for conduct stemming from the infamous shooting of Michael Brown (Johnson was walking beside Brown during the incident). Johnson alleged that Wilson ordered the pair to "get on the fucking sidewalk", then abruptly parked his car in front of the duo, blocking their path, struck Brown with the car door, got into a scuffle with Brown, and ended up firing his weapon at the pair (missing Johnson but striking and killing Brown). Nonetheless, the Court concluded that the pair had not been seized because (a) Johnson did not need to "remain by Brown's side" while Wilson and Brown fought and (b) the position of Wilson's police car did not literally block them entirely from fleeing the area.

The dissenters (Judge Melloy writing for Chief Judge Smith and Judges Erickson and Kelly) simply make mince-meat of this argument. The touchstone question for a seizure is whether the officer's actions would "have communicated to a reasonable person that he was not at liberty to ignore the police presence and go about his business". There might not be a single area of constitutional law with more ludicrous precedents than this -- the sorts of scenarios where courts say, with apparent straight faces, that people would feel free "to ignore the police presence" are beyond absurd (to take one example, cited in the dissent: in United States v. Hayden, we were told that any reasonable person would feel free to ignore the police when the officer pulled up alongside the defendant, shined a flashlight on him, and screamed “Police!”). Yet even here, the facts clearly "communicated an intent to use a roadblock to stop Johnson’s movement," and therefore a seizure.

The argument that the roadblock did not literally prevent all modes of escape from the area should be too ludicrous to reply to if the majority did not rely on it. Not only is that unrealistic in practice -- just how tight must the dragnet be, then, before it is conceded to be impossible to escape? Must the officers all lock arms in a circle? -- it has nothing to do with the legal inquiry, which is whether a reasonable person would understand the officers as trying to communicate an order to stop. Abruptly driving your police car to place it directly in front of your quarry's path does that, and it's not close. There's virtually no question that had Johnson attempted to "simply ignore" Wilson's directives the officer would not have thought "well, that's perfectly innocent conduct reflecting his right to ignore me under the Constitution" (look what happened to Clark!).

Of course, it's possible that in this case the extremely high-profile and heavily-reported nature of the controversy might have influenced the court's decision -- in particular, they might believe that the facts might not have been as Johnson alleged. But it is hornbook law that at this stage in the proceeding judges must accept Johnson's factual allegations as true -- disputes of fact are addressed at a later stage. And that matters because this case sets a precedent, which in turn applies to other cases down the line where the facts haven't been as thoroughly hashed out in the media as here. It is not just Dorian Johnson but any person who finds a police car screeching to halt inches in front of them after being screamed at by the officer who now will find that -- contrary to any actual "reasonable person's" perspective -- it would be wholly unreasonable for them to believe that the police were communicating that they needed to submit.

I'd say that the majority might have allowed itself to be swayed by the public nature of the controversy, except that gives them far too much credit. The fact is, the Eighth Circuit has near-infinite tolerance for police excesses directed against the citizens in its jurisdiction, in cases of any degree of public prominence. Clark is a low-profile case and Johnson is a very high-profile one, but they're tied together by the unifying cord of all the Eighth Circuit's jurisprudence in this area: extreme, complete, and unshakable deference to the police over and against ordinary citizens.

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