Following the Supreme Court’s watering down of police expectations in Heien, a few people asked for examples of what they were talking about when they approved “objectively reasonable” mistakes of law. Fortunately, there is a video out of Victoria, Texas.
Dashcam video from the incident posted by Raw Story, above, shows officer Nathanial Robinson, 23, pull over Pete Vasquez, 76, at Adam’s Auto Mart in Victoria, Texas, as “Under Ground Kings” by Drake blares from the cruiser’s radio.
Vasquez gets out of the car, walks behind it and gestures toward the license plate and to the office of the dealer, where he works. He later told the Victoria Advocate newspaper that he was explaining that the dealer tags on the car make it exempt from inspection.
Victoria Police Chief Jeffrey “J.J.” Craig confirmed to the paper that the car was exempt.
Is it objectively reasonable that the police officer, 23-year-old Nathaniel Robinson, mistakenly thinks that the car 76-year-old Vasquez is driving, the one he parks directly in front of the dealership where he works, is missing a sticker? That would be up to the judge, who may think, “well, heck, anybody could make that mistake.”
You know, there are a gazillion rules and regulations about cars, and nobody could be expected to know the intricacies of each and every one of them. Well, not quite “nobody,” as everyone who isn’t a cop is certainly held to a standard of perfect knowledge, but perhaps the judge will see it differently when it comes to police officers. Because their job is very hard and dangerous, and they have to make split second decisions. They can only be expected to be reasonable, not perfect. Perfect is saved for the rest of us.
As for old man Vasquez, one could certainly ponder why he didn’t immediately acquiesce to the commands of baby cop Robinson, despite his clear and correct knowledge that Robinson was wrong, that he had done nothing to justify seizure and, more importantly, that he posed no threat, except possibly to this kid’s fragile-cop self-esteem, to justify being thrown to the ground and tased.
When you’re 76 years old, getting thrown to the ground is a pretty dangerous thing. Bones break, and they don’t mend as easily as they did when you’re, say, 23. Tasers aren’t a lot of fun either, and even less so had they taken Vasquez’s life. As the question that must perpetually be asked, was Robinson’s enforcement, his mistake of law, worth Vasquez’s life? That he wasn’t killed isn’t the relevant inquiry. He could have been, and that’s the point. Was this worthy of execution?
To his credit, Victoria Police Chief Craig conceded that his cop was just a total dumbass, wrong about the law and wrong in his use of force against a person who did nothing whatsoever to justify the use of force. Robinson has been taken off the street and put on administrative duty pending an investigation. His rush to beat down an old man for contempt of cop certainly suggests that, his poor knowledge of the law he’s authorized to enforce notwithstanding, he likes violence just a little too much to be handed a gun and told to have fun out there.
Notably, had this not been captured on video, and had other grown-up officers not arrived on the scene before Robinson had the opportunity to teach Vasquez a really good lesson about respecting his authority, this may well have produced the issue raised by Chief Justice Roberts as to how much latitude of ignorance should cops be allowed to reasonably enjoy.
But Vasquez survived, so perhaps we’ll just have to wait until a mistake of law takes a person’s life to appreciate the full depth of the Heien decision. Give it time. It will happen, even if there is no way to anticipate exactly what bit of “objectively reasonable” incompetence costs a person their life.