Barely Legally

Confessions of a Moot Court Bailiff

One Taillight

Walter Scott was shot in the back three days ago by a police officer in South Carolina. The police officer claimed that Scott ran (on foot) from the police, seized the officer’s Taser stun gun, and attempted to use it against him.

But that’s not what actually happened. The New York Times has video of the shooting, and it’s horrifying. The officer uses his Taser on Scott, and Scott runs from the officer. The officer fires wildly at the unarmed Scott and kills him. And then it gets worse.

The officer walks over to Scott’s body, handcuffs him, walks back to the spot where he dropped the Taser, picks up the Taser, and drops the Taser next to the corpse. This is horrifying. This should really, really upset you. This is shooting an unarmed man in the back, this is tampering with a crime scene, this is lying about whether or not the unarmed guy was armed, and so on.

I’m not an expert on South Carolina laws about self defense, but I don’t have to be. In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled in Tennessee v. Garner that it’s unconstitutional to simply shoot fleeing unarmed suspects. The police cannot use deadly force (firing a pistol is always deadly force) unless it’s necessary to prevent the escape of a fleeing suspect who the officer has probable cause to believe “poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.”

The Worst Part(s)

Walter Scott is dead. But here’s the second-worst part.

Who was the highly dangerous Walter Scott? What violent felony were the police attempting to halt his flight from? If he is such a hardened criminal, why did he forget to bring his own flamethrower?

It was a traffic stop. Scott’s Mercedes had a taillight out. It wasn’t a felony. It wasn’t even a misdemeanor.

It actually wasn’t even a violation. South Carolina only requires cars to have a single taillight. Scott wasn’t even breaking the law. The officer was apparently as ignorant about the legality of shooting unarmed fleeing suspects as he was about the niceties of the local traffic law.

If this taillight business sounds familiar, that’s because the ink is barely dry on a Supreme Court opinion about the consequences of confusion around a broken taillight. That case happened in North Carolina, where a police officer was mistaken about the legality of having a broken taillight. During the traffic stop and subsequent search, the police found drugs in the car. That used to be an illegal search, but the Supreme Court ruled that reasonable ignorance of the law is okay.

Of course, reasonable ignorance of the law usually doesn’t lead straight to wild shootouts where only one of the parties has a gun. That’s a special kind of ignorance. I can’t wait to see how the local prosecutor fails to indict this one.