But For Video: A Mistake of Law

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.

11 thoughts on “But For Video: A Mistake of Law

  1. rich

    What training causes a 23 year old believe it is acceptable to tase a man of nearly 80? Seems like they need to teach remedial decency and humanity at the police academy before proceeding to more weighty matters.

  2. John Barleycorn

    Nathaniel and his generation of blue warriors may benefit from some DJs that mix in a little historical context now then in-between the top forty riffs they cruise to day in and day out.

    Some tactical fashion advice regarding sunglasses couldn’t hurt either.

  3. Josh

    One question i have always meant to ask, is it usual for police in the US to patrol solo? i have never seen a police officer in Australia who was out on the beat on their own. Granted the addition of another cop into a situation like this may not make any difference to the outcome.

  4. Larry West

    (not for posting… just that I stumbled when reading ” isn’t the relative inquiry”, should be “relevant”, I assume.)

  5. Rebecca

    I really don’t understand why the “reasonableness” of a mistake is even an issue here. Say the man really had been required to have an inspection sticker, but he reasonably believed that he wasn’t. Would that argument get him out of the ticket? Doesn’t seem to work for me.

  6. DannyJ119

    Update: It was reported yesterday that this officer was fired from the Victoria PD. The findings from the Texas Rangers’ investigation have been handed off to the local DA to review for criminal charges. No links included, per rules.

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