Blinded By The Lights

There are two basic choices if you feel the need to do something when you’re blinded by the headlights of the car coming in the opposite direction.  There’s the Woody Allen/Christopher Walken option, not advisable.  Or you can flash your lights, a long time courtesy to alert the other driver that his high beams may be on.

Deven Guilford picked the second option, which didn’t sit well with the driver of the oncoming car, Eaton County, Michigan Sheriff’s Department Sgt. Jonathan Frost. Via Radley Balko:

Frost has said he was not using his high beams, but was driving a new police car that apparently had unusually bright headlights. He even told Guilford that he had previously pulled over other drivers for flashing their brights at him — all of whom had mistakenly thought he was using his high beams — and let them off with warnings. This would seem to indicate that Frost was driving with headlights that other drivers found distracting and potentially dangerous. Yet instead of looking into the matter, he continued to pull people over, essentially for the crime of being distracted by his lights.

So Sgt. Frost was basically being a douche about driving around with lights that weren’t on high beam, but were sufficiently bright to cause driver after driver to think otherwise.

He had options as well, to do something about his lights, to explain to drivers who thought he had his brights on that it was an understandable mistake, and apologize for blinding them. To keep on driving, perhaps. Or to kill.

Initially, as Frost engaged Guilford in a dispute over his flashing lights, it was unpleasant but civil.

Both men are pretty stubborn throughout the stop. Frost at first seems more polite. When Guilford tells him that he’s recording the interaction, Frost says he’s fine with that.

Then, things took a tragic turn for the worst.

Photos of Frost taken after the altercation seem to support his contention that Guilford punched him several times in the face.

And 17-year-old Devon Guilford laid in the road, dead from a gunshot.

According to local media reports, Guilford had recently become interested in civil liberties, particularly with respect to citizen-police interactions. It also appears that he had read some bad advice. In the video, Guilford tells the officer that he isn’t obligated to provide his driver’s license.

(Local columnist Judy Putnam reports that Guilford was driving from his girlfriend’s house to a church basketball game and had simply forgotten his license at her home.)

This is incorrect. In most places, a driver is obligated to provide a license and registration (and in some states, proof of insurance) when been pulled over, even if the police officer lacked cause for the underlying stop.

This is the nightmare. The internets are replete with “advice” about individual rights and freedoms, what cops can and cannot do, what “tricks” a person should do to assert his liberty.  Most of this is crap. Most is wrong. Some is utterly insane, and almost all is unduly simplistic. Even the stuff that is legally accurate tends not to be sufficient given that every circumstance is different, and calls for a deeper, broader understanding of how these “rules” apply.

Devon Guilford was interested. He was not knowledgeable.  Perhaps he read or saw something that piqued his interest and purported to teach him what to do when stopped by a police officer.  Showing cops how smart you are by telling them about your rights is always a big draw, garnering lots of wild-eyed support and the occasional flaming nutjob endorsement.

To those of you who spread this idiocy, are you proud of yourselves?  Devon Guilford is dead. Aren’t you just the smartest people on the internets.  Radley is far more forgiving of the promotion of ignorance about what our rights are and how to assert them than I am.  Perhaps that’s because I’m a lawyer. Perhaps that’s because I’m a father. Perhaps that’s because I’ve seen too many people hurt and killed.

It’s not that I’m against the assertion of rights, but that I’m against kids dying in the street. If you don’t know for sure what you’re talking about, just shut the fuck up and don’t tell some 17-year-old kid to shoot off his mouth because it seems like a good idea to you.

This is not to say that Frost, who will not be charged with any offense for the shooting, was without blame.

But we shouldn’t let the police off the hook that easily. There’s something to be said for exercising your rights not only to further some political cause, but as a cause and an end unto itself. In a free society it’s healthy to exercise your rights just for the sake of exercising them, just as you do your heart or your lungs. You want them healthy and robust when you need them. That means taking actions like refusing to be searched even though you have nothing to hide, or recording your interaction with police, even though you’ve done nothing wrong, or refusing to show ID when you aren’t required to, even though you may have it in your pocket. Exercising our rights even when it’s unnecessary can also show us where they need some shoring up.

So Devon Guilford was wrong about his right not to show his license and registration? People are wrong about the law all the time, and that includes cops, who are generally clueless about the law despite their bravado in telling others that whatever they say is the law.

Sgt. Frost has the option to escalate the encounter or let it slide. Because Guilford didn’t act with the compliance Frost demanded, he chose escalation, which led to violence, which led to death.  It did not have to be this way.

There was nothing so terrible about the kid flashing his lights in the first place, and if Frost was half the big boy he thought he was, he would have behaved like a grown-up, conceded his light problem and wished Guilford a safe trip. Instead, he killed him.


32 thoughts on “Blinded By The Lights

  1. Dave

    This whole thing has been very upsetting here. There was no need for the escalation and I would expect the adult police officer to show more restraint than a teenage kid. This has been front and center for me here since this is my county, my schools (where my kids attend), and now my worry about what will happen if one of my kids gets pulled over by Frost. My daughter is not known for showing much respect to authority of any kind (certainly not from me.) This should not be something any parent has to worry about.

      1. John Barleycorn

        Good point, but the last time I checked it is against the law for parents to taze children even if they are your own and they are being particularity insolent about commands to comply with your wishes. Heck you can’t even pistol whip them anymore.

        Parents should really be give the option to take a training course that grants them special powers when it comes to educating the next generation before the children figure out how to use the intertubes to unionize.

        RIP Devon Guilford.

  2. Chris H

    Ever since I read your post about “command presence” and the First Rule of Policing in 2014, these videos have all made so much more sense to me. Not because the outcomes are acceptable but because, viewed through the lens of command presence, they are inevitable. If only those who gave or followed advice about “asserting your rights” understood this point as well as you did, I think we would not have so many of these tragedies.

  3. Ehud Gavron

    I fly helicopters. Other pilots and I voraciously read every accident report and discuss the details. We do so because we want to learn from others’ experience and avoid repeating those incidents. Through it all we must retain the same basic tenet:

    We do not blame the victim.

    No matter how convenient to assign a portion of blame or even full responsibility, it is possible to discuss a helicopter accident with tragic deaths without necessitating blame.

    Equally dispassionately and with respect to a dead seventeen year old kid – what we can learn from this, as you pointed out, is that a trained police officer who knew his headlights were not properly aimed* chose to create a situation, and then escalate the situation.

    1. The officer should have had his own headlights repaired.
    2. It is not unlawful to flash high-beams at another vehicle [yes I reviewed MCL for this]. There was no cause for the traffic stop.
    3. In a situation where the driver refuses to produce documentation, police procedure is to inquire the driver’s name and date of birth, and verify the information by radio dispatch. “Arguing with the driver” is not the proper procedure.
    4. When the situation deteriorated, it is the *RESPONSIBILITY* of the *TRAINED* *PEACE*-officer to resist the temptation to be a big-f***ing d*** and instead man up and walk away and call for backup.

    Can we blame a 17 year old for lacking the maturity to properly research how to deal with a LEO encounter? Sure. Is that rare? No. Will this in any way contribute to preventing THE PROBLEM? No.

    The problem isn’t a 17 year old kid high on testosterone and adrenalin and whatever he read on the ‘Net that day. It’s a mature LEO who lacks judgment, is vindictive and petty, and stops people for no reason.

    Helicopter accidents happen. When a pilot failed to find a mechanic’s tool in his engine we can blame an improper pre-flight check but the real problem is the mechanic failed to tag and check all his tools. The right answer is to require better responsibility from the mechanic.

    LEO encounters happen much more frequently. When the person subject to an unlawful traffic stop has either been given bad information on the Internet or by their parents or peers — that should not result in a tazing or a death. What it should result in is polite professional policework.

    Who is to say whether a blog that teaches everyone to “shut up and obey” in a traffic stop situation is any worse than one that says “argue with the cop”. In most cases the former is personal choice of prior restraint. In the latter it should result in an extra misdemeanor charge… or less — Not death.

    Commercial helicopter pilot

    * Laws in various states indicate how headlights should be aimed. Likely this new patrol car had weight added to the rear, or its lights were simply misaimed. The driver of a vehicle is responsible for the proper maintenance to be compliant with the law. Most states have exclusions for law-enforcement personnel during the performance of their duty. I was unable to locate in Michigan Compiled Laws restrictions on headlight use.

    1. SHG Post author

      Ultimately, it’s always the grown-up in the room who has the ability to prevent stupid from getting out of hand. Frost was the grown-up here. He failed.

      1. John Barleycorn

        Hey now! After looking at those photos of Frost how can you say he failed “grown up”?

        Just think of how much restraint and discipline it must have took for him to allow all that blood on his face to dry without wiping it off on his trip to the hospital. No child could pull that off.

        BTW, did he go in an ambulance or did one of his fellow grown up officers take him?

        I bet that itched like a mother fucker while drying out. Can’t wait to read all about the details of this heroism in the investigative reports when, if ever, they are released.

        1. Tommy Gilley

          The report that I read indicated was being pummeled by the young man from above, and he feared for his life as he began to black out. Amazing that his face had no bruising, just a large bump with a straight line gash on his forehead. Almost like he knew what he had done, and decided to bash his forehead on a dense, heavy object. I have a scar very similar to his injury which resulted from a face first fall into concrete. I’ve been in fights, and my face never looked like that due to punches.

          Of course, none of this means even 1% of the time and effort it took to type this post.

          1. SHG Post author

            Don’t do this. It’s worthless speculation. And even if you do, don’t write about it here.

            1. John Barleycorn

              What the hell you seem particularly cranky enough to throw dirt clods at today…

              You are correct of course but what’s a little speculation when a prosecutor is selective about what he does and does not to choose to release in cases such as this?

              Heck, who is to say the State Police investigative report/s and the DA’s follow up don’t include more speculation than fact without seeing all the evidence and work product?

              Once again, seems to me like another fine example of a prosecutor not wanting to take ALL of the evidence and investigative work product of the police and the DA’s office to a grand jury simply because he has a “final” report exonerating the accused officer which is authored by the state police and the DA’s own internal conclusions.

              Good for them, not so good for our criminal justice system IMHO.

              To purposefully exclude the grand jury and its perspective and rightful place within our criminal justice system from putting its stamp on this prosecutors conclusion, especially considering the loss of life, is hubris run amok.

              Anyway, I for one think ALL the evidence and work product of the inquiry should have been presented to a grand jury and should always be presented to a grand jury anytime a citizen is killed by the police especially an unarmed citizen.

              Fuck “reports” take the evidence, ALL the evidence to the grand jury. I for one would like to read the testimony of the responding paramedics, see the video footage from the backup officers, read the examination of the weapon report (Did Officer High Beam’s own gun caused his injury?), read the statement of the officer, etc, etc, etc!

              Sorry, Mr. DA Man, summaries just aren’t doing it for me anymore.

              The judgement of the state police as to what went down in this incident and whether any criminal conduct was committed by the guy with the gun and a badge is fine and dandy. Have at it, put a fucking bow or two on it if your want before you present it to the grand jury but fuck you for sidestepping their roll, function, and obligation.

              Speaking of speculation, keep in mind that the photos of the wounded officer were released in response to outrage from the public over the final report and not included in the original release of reports made public. Why stop with the photos of the dried blood? If you are gonna go there, then go there! They are calling you bad names and questioning your judgement Mr. prosecutor why not show um what else you got?

              What else is there that was never released?

              For example, why release the toxicology report of the dead kid and not that of the officer etc etc…and I really, really want to know who drove the officer to hospital.

              I am not saying officer high beam did anything wrong (other than deciding to become a police officer) but to deny the grand jury input and to forsake them of their ability to dig farther into this incident, if they so choose to do so, irregardless of the “official” state police report and the prosecutors conclusions is bullshit.

              P.S. When am I going to have to stop speculating about when the mother of all grand jury posts is going to come out? It’s gonna make a great children’s book. Don’t worry kids dig scary zombie stories these days and rumor has it civic duty is coming back and might even be taught in grade school again one of these days.

            2. SHG Post author

              Concise. Remember our old buddy, concise?

              It’s funny, some people engage in all manner of wild speculation because it’s fun, interesting and allows them to confirm their bias. My problem is that it makes people stupider. Discuss facts, not fantasy. And when there aren’t any known facts, then we don’t do what cops do: shoot first.

            3. John Barleycorn

              Just in case I might have missed with that volley of dirt clods.

              I forget to include what is known beyond a shadow of doubt!

              “As a result of these findings, Sgt. Frost will be restored to full patrol duties. We have not yet seen the investigative reports and upon obtaining them, we will diligently review them as part of an internal procedure.”

            4. Tommy Gilley

              Sorry. This one is one of the most egregious of the videos to surface this year – though I suspect this one’s power is it’s the first where I could specifically see myself.

            5. SHG Post author

              When one can see oneself in a situation, it becomes personal, and that undermines the ability to see things from a detached perspective. It’s not that it’s wrong, but that it takes you down a path that may be completely wrong. You may be right, but you may not. It’s fine to raise the possibility, but it’s a mistake to then bootstrap a mere possibility into reality.

              A number of others have agreed with your view (though I didn’t post their comments as it takes this discussion down a path of inane fantasy), none of whom have any more basis than you do and many less. So if ten people engage in a mutual fantasy that the earth is flat, does that make the earth flat? Of course not. But if we then take a flat earth as a starting point for the next level of speculation, thought is reduced to utter nonsense. That’s the problem. While we can draw one level of reasonable inference from known fact, anything further devolves into nonsense. Personal feelings make us want to do that, but it doesn’t contribute to any real thought. It’s just emotional indulgence.

  4. Curtis

    Sgt. Frost now says he feared Deven may have been part of a sovereign nation or militia movement and may have been calling for backup at the outset of the conflict. So let this be a lesson to cops. Every time someone is filming you with their cellphones, they are secretly calling their sovereign nation and/or militia.

    1. SHG Post author

      This is in fact a more troubling problem than your comment (which I’ve edited) appears to recognize.

      1. AH

        How incredibly depressing and tragic.

        We also have “freemen” north of the border. Although I recognize the potential that this is tangential, I offer up the case of R. v. Duncan, 2013 ONCJ 160 (no links as per rules, but can be found by googling the citation) for its entertaining legal writing (usually an oxymoron) as well as the stark contrast to this conclusion despite very similar precipitating events. This is what should happen to a young man exercising his rights to the police, perhaps foolishly. A man described by the judge as “a pleasant young man with ‘notions'” not only gets to live to (hopefully) see the error of his ways, but is also acquitted of assaulting a police officer. It is a tragedy that the same can’t be said for Devon Guilford, who didn’t even get the chance to stand trial.

      2. dm

        Which is the more troubling problem:
        1. That there are so many sovereign citizen nut jobs running about, or
        2. That so many officers seem to believe that anybody who asserts their constitutional rights may be a sovereign citizen nut job ready to pull a “West Memphis, Arkansas” scenario?
        I think you were implying the latter, but I’m not sure.

        1. SHG Post author

          The latter is clearly more of a problem, but that doesn’t mean the former doesn’t create a problem as well. But then, if people want to be sovereign citizens, that’s their right, crazy as it may be. That doesn’t mean it would be wise to ignore the mindset that it creates in a cop.

          Or to put it another way, you’re “more troubling problem” mixes apples and Fords, and ignores the significance of the interplay between the two, when such issues arise. There is no reason to ask the question. They’re both problems of different sorts, and we would be better off without these problems.

          1. Curtis

            So we are at the point that not asserting your rights means your not a sovereign and/or militia type. Because, if you do assert your rights, you are a sovereign and/or militia type.

            “Yeah, I’m a dick-head cop, what of it? You’re not one of those sovereign/militia types are you?”

            1. SHG Post author

              No, and by offering idiotic binary options, you remind me that you really aren’t up to the task of offering anything thoughtful here. If you want to make points, do it at reddit. If this is the best you can do, then go elsewhere.

  5. Christine

    As a young public defender, I’m always itching to deny cops what they want. (Of course, since going to law school, learning the actual law, becoming obsessed with the 4th amendment and choosing this career path, I haven’t gotten pulled over or searched once!) So the excerpt about exercising your rights for the sake of exercising them really resonates with me… except now I have that nagging little voice in the back of my head saying “but what if I get shot?” Is it really worth it? I also try to advise my clients on how to deal with cops, what they can and can’t do, etc… but what if *they* get shot because they objected to a search a little to aggressively? How messed up is it that cops have managed to scare even the most knowledgeable (and law abiding) citizens from correctly exercising their rights? I’m not saying I’m at all surprised by the abuse of power… just constantly disappointed.

    1. SHG Post author

      Some know when to push, and when to pull back. Others just push, and instead of pulling back, push harder. There is no magic secret to teach people how and when to push and pull, and if they do it wrong, bad things can happen. No one prevails under the Fourth Amendment when they’re dead.

      The biggest dilemma is the multitude of clueless, simplistic buffoons egging on the ignorant to stand up for their rights, with usually erroneous, simplistic or inadequate legal advice. So people feel empowered (“I know my rights”) and end up doing something that could get them killed.

      I am not suggesting the people bend over and kiss ass, but I am suggesting that people must be aware that whoever is telling them about these “secret magic legal tricks” on the internet won’t be there when the bullet hits them. And to all the geniuses giving “legal advice,” this is what can happen from your stupidity.

      1. Christine

        Agreed. I guess I latched on to the wrong part of your blog post. When I started law school 99% of the questions anybody would ask me was what to do when you get pulled over. While slightly more knowledgeable than an internet moron, you probably shouldn’t take advice from a law student, much less the internet morons. Now that I’m actually a lawyer I just say ‘always ask if you’re allowed to refuse and BE POLITE.’

        1. SHG Post author

          This is why almost all answers to legal questions are “it depends.” But that’s not what people want to hear. They want rules, as if that will keep them alive. Be polite. Never touch the cop. Assert your rights, but do so cooperatively and pleasantly. Keep your hand where the cop can see them. If it appears that he’s going to use force, obey now and grieve later. And even that isn’t sufficient to assure that everyone gets home for dinner.

    2. Celia

      I admire people who study in the hope that things can be improved. Unfortunately, young people need TIME to learn. Who knew everything there was to know at 17? I stand with the women working to change police protocol for dealing with unarmed youths. This officer needed to be the *grown-up* here and failed miserably. In fact, he sounded more like a ticked-off older brother throughout this incident than an officer of the law. Those of us that analyse personalities from handwriting samples would probably have a field day with this one. If a handwritten report turns up anywhere online, please share it.

  6. Tommy Gilley

    He was 17. You present a 17 year old who doesn’t have some percentage of dumbass in him, and there will be two dumbasses in front of me. This could’ve been me, and a lot of other people I knew when I was 17. At a minimum, this cop was an adult first, and someone Lansing trusts to protect and serve them. This video made me sick to my stomach.

    Can you imagine what the parents felt the first time they saw these videos? How has the father not velamoored this cop?

    1. SHG Post author

      I remember when my boy was 17. Smart as a whip, and thick as a brick. It could easily have been him.

  7. Kevin Graham

    After reading countless comments on several sites, I feel compelled to say that this incident has been very disturbing from the start. As the father of four sons and a rebellious daughter, I can’t imagine what the Guilford family is going through. This hits very close to home, I live in an adjacent county and my parents live next door to some of this boys relatives. There is tension in the community because of this. Could Deven have handled this differently? Obviously. Did I and probably many of us make questionable decisions at 17? Definitely. Did Frost contribute to the escalation of a situation that was less than serious? Obviously. Frost’s defenders can argue all they want about behaving within his rights to defend himself. Bullshit. I have pre-teen sons that have inflicted more damage on each other than the split on his forehead. They have not tried to pump 7 rounds into one another. 145lb. 11th grade boy vs. armed, trained cop. 7 shots. The dried blood conveniently left for effect does not help. I may be wrong, but I don’t believe that if I were accosted by an unarmed man, say in a bar, and got struck in the head with punches once or twice, that I would be justified legally by pulling out a gun and emptying the clip into him. I believe I would be sent to prison. In my time I have had dealings with some truly good and dedicated leo’s. A few dealings with some egotistical, arrogant power-trippers that apparently got beat up on the school bus one too many times. The killing of this boy is tragic.

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