Edit: What follows is, I regret to say, wrong. As reflected in the update below, my commentary was premised on a mistake of law, for which I apologize. Unlike police officers, my mistake is not worthy of forgiveness, and I do not want any reader to be made stupider by my error.
To the extent those who seek to trivialize North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager’s killing of Walter Scott can find some comfort, it was that Slager was justified in stopping Scott for a broken tail light. First out of the box on this claim was former criminal defense lawyer turned shameless TV slut, Geraldo, who argued that this “righteous stop” somehow diminishes the crime of murder:
Putting aside the pandering stupidity of Gerry’s point, it suffers from one huge flaw. He’s wrong. At Slate, Cristian Farias does what Geraldo failed to do. He did what a good lawyer should do, and looked at the law.
South Carolina law is straightforward on the issue of third brake lights. Motor vehicles must be equipped with “a stop lamp on the rear”—a singular brake light, which is to be maintained in good working order. A South Carolina appeals court has confirmed this reading: A single operating brake light means a vehicle is “in full compliance with all statutory requirements regarding rear vehicle lights,” and a stop premised on requiring anything more is “unreasonable” and thus a violation of the driver’s constitutional rights.
The dashcam video of Slager’s stop lays bare his excuse for stopping Scott.
The dashcam video leaves no doubt as to why Slager pulled over Scott: “The reason for the stop is that your third brake light’s out,” Slager told Scott, minutes prior to the fatal shooting.
Third brake light? As in, the first brake light worked. The second brake light worked. The third did not. But under South Carolina law, there is no requirement for a third brake light. Or even a second. The first one is enough to be in full compliance with the statutory requirements, and the others are belt and suspenders, exceeding the requirement of state equipment law.
Slager’s asserted “reason” had no premise in South Carolina law: Scott’s vehicle was in full compliance. Lacking reasonable suspicion that Scott was doing something illegal, Slager should’ve never pulled him over in the first place, unless his true motive was something other than a concern for enforcing the laws he took an oath to uphold.
Had Geraldo, who is only too happy to cash Rupert Murdoch’s paycheck, remembered the days when he was a lawyer rather than a pandering fool making excuses designed to appease his Overlord and fool an adoring public, he might have checked the law before putting on his “I’m a TV star” suit and realized that he’s no more entitled to guess at what the law requires than any other guy who hasn’t demonstrated the good judgment of shaving off his 70s porn ‘stache.
Now if all of this brake light talk sounds naggingly familiar, there’s a good reason. It’s the same mistake of law, that all brake lights had to work rather than just the one the law requires, that the Supreme Court decided was an “objectively reasonable” screw up in Heien v. North Carolina, suggesting one of three possibilities:
1. The cops in both Carolinas, north and south, have no clue what their respective laws require.
2. The cops in both Carolinas, north and south, care so deeply about safety that they are willing to risk judicial censure to assure that brake lights in excess of that required by law are working.
3. The cops in both Carolinas, north and south, will use any excuse to pull someone over, extra points if the guy is black.
And to the extent there was ever any doubt, every interaction between cop and citizen has the potential for violence, which is why Yale lawprof Stephen Carter explained we should never enact a law for which we’re unprepared to kill. Then again, in light of the Supreme Court’s blessing of ignorance (which has since been adopted by the New York Court of Appeals), even the mistaken emanations and penumbras of laws are sufficient cause to commence a series of events that end in death at the end of a cop’s gun.
The charitable leeway the Supreme Court offered police officers was softened by the dreaded standard of “reasonableness.” After all, anyone who disdains being reasonable must, in contrast, be unreasonable. Nobody wants to be unreasonable.
Chief Justice John Roberts, who doesn’t seem to get pulled over often, announced the Heien reasoning with elegance: “To be reasonable is not to be perfect, and so the Fourth Amendment allows for some mistakes on the part of government officials, giving them fair leeway for enforcing the law in the community’s protection.”
The rationale is, indeed, “elegant,” if only in its rhetorical breadth. Of course, had CJ Roberts considered the application of law from the perspective of the citizen rather than that of a cop in the Carolinas, north or south, he might have framed his rationale as whether it’s reasonable for a citizen who was perfect in his adherence to the law to be able to go about his day without being stopped by a government official, seized by a government official and ultimately shot eight times in the back by that government official.
But then, this would require the law to place a priority on the lives of citizens rather than the “objectively reasonable” ignorance of cops. And it might leave Geraldo with nothing righteous to say when a cop shoots an unarmed black guy in the back.
Update: As brought to my attention by Walter Katz, the Court of Appeals decision holding the South Carolina only requires a single brake light was subsequently reversed by the South Carolina Supreme Court.
The trial judge and the Court of Appeals majority read these sections to require only one functioning brake light. The State argues that even though only one brake light is required, when there is more than one brake light on a vehicle, they must both be in good working condition. The State relies on the language in § 56-5-4730: When a vehicle is equipped with a stop lamp or other signal lamps, such lamp or lamps shall at all times be maintained in good working condition.
The Court of Appeals’s interpretation of § 56-5-4730 requiring that only a single stop lamp be in good working condition overlooks the “when a vehicle is equipped” phrase which refers back to the first sentence of the statute providing for both mandatory and discretionary stop lamps. We hold, under a plain reading of § 56-5-4730, it is unlawful to drive with a non-functioning brake light. Accordingly, the traffic stop in this case was valid. The Court of Appeals’s decision is
The decision holds that while only one brake light it required, where there are more than one on a vehicle, all must be in good working order, and a stop based upon one light not working, even when there is a working brake light, is not unlawful. My analysis, snark and all, relying upon the Court of Appeals decision, is wrong, and Slager’s stop was, under South Carolina law, lawful. Whether it was “righteous” remains a separate issue.