In today’s society, there seems to be an emerging trend of distrust related to police officers, where the public often feels that the police overstep their bounds and exercise poor judgment. I think most people would agree that there is inherent danger in the practice of police work, and that as a matter of public policy we want our officers to be safe. However, the question that keeps presenting itself in the news is: are the current laws we have protecting officer safety actually causing harm to citizens?
Laws related to officer safety have been in place for decades. In the 1977 case Pennsylvania v. Mimms, the Supreme Court held that police have the automatic right under Terry to order a driver out of the car during the course of a legal stop. (In Maryland v. Wilson (1997), the Court extended Mimms to give police power to order passengers out of the car during traffic-related stops). “The State's proffered justification for such order—the officer's safety—is both legitimate and weighty, and the intrusion into respondent's personal liberty occasioned by the order, being, at most, a mere inconvenience, cannot prevail when balanced against legitimate concerns for the officer's safety.” However, the Court was not unanimous in this decision. Justice Stevens vehemently dissented stating, “Some citizens will be subjected to this minor indignity while others -- perhaps those with more expensive cars, or different bumper stickers, or different-colored skin -- may escape it entirely.”
Justice Stevens’ concerns may have been realized in a recent incident in Hammond, Indiana, which has once again brought this issue to the forefront. An Indiana family is suing the Hammond Police Department for use of excessive force, false arrest and imprisonment, assault and battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. This came after an incident where Lisa Mahone, who was driving with her friend, Jamal Jones, and her two children ages 14 and 7, was pulled over for a seatbelt violation. Mahone and Jones were both cited for not wearing their seatbelts. They were asked for their driver’s licenses. Mahone gave the officer her license and had no further issues, but Jones had recently turned over his license to the police in an unrelated event. Because he did not have his license he tried to find other identification. The police officers, which supposedly were frightened when Jones reached in the backseat for his backpack that contained identification, asked him to step out of the car. He refused to do so saying that he was not the operator of the vehicle. The passengers of the car stated that they were afraid because of incidents they were aware of where officers mistreated people. The police called for backup and repeatedly asked Jones to get out of the car. He would not get out, and only cracked the window enough to hand the officers a paper containing his identification. After about thirteen minutes of this dispute, the officers used an ax to break the window and used a taser to get Jones out of the car. The glass reportedly flew and hit the children who were in the backseat. The 14 year-old boy filmed the event. You can hear the children and Mahone screaming and crying after Jones is removed from the car.
The Hammond Police Department and and the Mayor of Hammond have both issued statements supporting the officers at the scene. In his statement Mayor McDermott said, “Northwest Indiana recently had two Police Officers killed in the line of duty. That is something I never want to see happen in Hammond as long as I am the Mayor, and I will legally do all I can, as Mayor, to help protect officer safety.” The Hammond Police Department statement said, “The Hammond Police officers were at all times acting in the interest of officer safety and in accordance with Indiana law.” This statement is likely to be proved correct by the courts. In a recent panel analyzing the events in Hammond, CNN enforcement analyst Tom Fuentes said, "when drivers get pulled over, whether they agree with the reason for the stop or they don't, you must comply with lawful requests of the police." However, he also said, “Just because the police could do it, doesn't mean they should. My question here is the judgment that they used smashing that window with the kid in the car and four passengers in that car if there could have been another way to get around that.”
Until this issue is addressed by the legislature or a change in precedent law, we are likely to continue to see litigation concerning people fighting for rights which they do not have, but believe they should. As the law stands right now, people such as Jamal Jones likely have no recourse.
Blog Editor, Criminal Law Practitioner
Photo by Jay Kleeman via Flickr