The Walter Scott Murder: Not Even The Stop Was “Righteous” (Update)

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.

27 thoughts on “The Walter Scott Murder: Not Even The Stop Was “Righteous” (Update)

  1. DDJ

    Is your first sentence correct as written?
    “To the extent those who seek to trivialize North Charleston Police Officer Michael Scott’s killing of Walter Scott can find some comfort, it was that Slager…”

    Not familiar with the case nor have I read your whole post yet, but this sounds as though the officer’s last name is Slager, not Scott.

  2. Ted H.

    Not sure why people have been missing this, it’s written into the law: “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 stop was OK, and a ticket would have been justified, but not death obviously.

  3. REvers

    Dude, it’s Geraldo. Expecting him to read and understand the law is like expecting Mary Anne to read and understand the law. It’s not going to happen.

  4. Not Jim Ardis

    Is it considered to be “not working” if the bulb lights up but the plastic is broken? Because while I could be mistaken that is what appears to be the case here.

  5. Sgt. Schultz

    Where are all those commenters who whine that you can’t take criticism, when you not only concede that you made an error in this post, but put it right at the top so that no one could read the post without realizing that you were wrong.

    Silence. I’m shocked.

    This is one of the reasons so many readers credit your statements and opinions. Lawyers know you know what you’re talking about, but more importantly, that if you are wrong, you’ve got the stones to admit it.

    To all you whiners, nice to hear from you.

    1. SHG Post author

      You expect way too much. It only matters when it’s their feelz at issue. That’s life in the blawgosphere.

    2. lawrence kaplan

      Sgt. Schultz: Since It seems you are referring to me among others, let me emphatically state that I greatly admire SHG’s readiness to clearly and forthrightly apologize when corrected on matters of fact. Indeed, I once corrected him on a matter of fact, and he right away acknowledged his error and thanked me for my correction. I do feel, however, as I have expressed recently, that when challenged on matters of opinion or on judgment, SHG often tends to respond in an overly personal and ad hominem manner. I may be right or wrong in my view, but these are two clearly separate issues.

      By the way Sgt. Schultz: You always chime in to criticize SHG’s critics. Have you ever expressed here an opinion of your own on any substantive issue?

      1. SHG Post author

        You think you might be taking this a bit too personally? You may be thinking more about SS than he does about you.

        1. lawrence kaplan

          I said “me among others.” Since I “whined” only just yesterday, and the good Sergeant directly replied to my comment with a — to give him credit – rather funny link, I do not believe my assumption is that unreasonable. But why not ask SS himself?

      2. Sgt. Schultz

        Hi Lawrence,

        You’re right. You’re all I think about. It’s . . . all about you. I’m so ashamed.

        1. lawrence kaplan

          SS: As I ever said or implied that. But, indeed, you should be ashamed at your feeble attempt at ridicule. At any event, the bottom line is that as one of the whiners you referred to, whether you had me in mind or not, by my speaking up and praising SGH for apologizing, I disproved your point. And, of course, you didn’t answer my question about whether you have on this blog ever made an independent substantive comment. But I guess the boys were just having some fun, and it’s well known that I lack a sense of humor. Whatever.

          1. John Barleycorn

            This is not really my place Lawrence, but if you keep this up I might have to go back to my old ways and start using the SJ back pages again as my go to place to relax and unwind after attending my court mandated therapy sessions while applying the new techniques I have learned there. This could lead to the esteemed one banishing me which could negatively effect my therapeutic progress in the grand scheme of things.

            Those were the good old days! I miss them sometimes. But if you don’t stop picking on some of my “concise” and “cogent” mentors like Sgt. Schultz I will have to reconsider my current routine and submit myself to their wicked ways once again and engage them on the mountainside as a symbolic gesture to keep the peace as they summon angels to taunt me during happy hour. I have tried and I am not equipped as of yet to prevail in such an engagement.

            You may not realize it but you and others here have played an instrumental role in my ongoing therapy. If I have failed to thank you personally or acknowledge your contributions and the tone in which they are delivered here I would like to do so now.

            Anyway, a while back now, after being incessantly picked on, ridiculed, dismissed and outright ignored here in the back pages of SJ I decided to escape the sarcastic and thankless confines of the SJ back pages as my sole source of worldly participation and decided to expanded the habitat of my learning.

            This has allowed me to continue on with my studies and here at SJ without letting my back pages experience at SJ negatively effect my ego or drinking schedule.

            It was a bold move but I finally realized I was going to have to take my feeble attempts to get attention for my infrequent substantive comments here and step out into the real world again seeing as how I am forbidden to frequent university libraries as a condition of my parole.

            So now, after my therapy sessions, instead coming here, I started dropping LSD and frequenting home improvement stores while pretending to be an employee.

            This is helping me greatly with transitioning back into the original content world without the crutch of the SJ back pages reply tab. Which has also allowed me to realize that whether or not I have a substantive comment to share with the readers of SJ back pages there are other reply tabs in the world that I must acknowledge and attend to but I can always come back here.

            Replacing the SJ back pages for an environment with fluorescent lighting that is both safe and suitable to observe and participate in, and at, what my therapist likes to call “intersections” is not easy to do.

            And boy, let me tell you “intersections” are magical places once you figure them out. Frankly, there is absolutely nothing like an “intersection” environment where critical thinking, enhanced with practicality, dissects known and unknown pre conceived notions and assumptions. And when you put that together in a setting were technical knowledge and skills can exist as folly and foundational fact simultaneously, one starts to flirt with galactic forces.

            This is why the SJ back pages have been compared to a clearinghouse of addiction without remedy.

            So, not that it is any of your concern nor that you should care but I thought I would share nonetheless and let you know that there are indeed places other than the back pages of SJ but there are few places other than here, given enough patience, that will substitute for the encounters one experiences in structured academic environments while allowing ones thalamus to act as a sort of heat sink as deep as any ocean.

            However, unlike other places, if you survive the SJ back pages it is more probable that your grandchildren will learn how to juggle life’s challenges even when they are under direct assault from demonic angles carrying quivers of arrows tipped with toads sweat and the bile of sarcastic dragons bile.

            This, I think, is due to the front and back pages of SJ subliminally possessing people over time with the ability to speak with their grand children in an extremely sarcastic tone that is critical but not too cranky as to scare them away from the importance of the lessons to be learned that may one day turn todays folly into tomorrows understanding.

            God speed and good luck in your future endeavors here in the back pages of SJ, Lawrence. There is room for everyone as long as we don’t piss off the esteemed one and if you ever need to chill out and have a few beers while still enjoying the game there is plenty of room in the cheap seats. If you are nice and don’t tell anyone in my normal section that you have a PhD from Harvard I will share secrets with you, if you want.

            1. lawrence kaplan

              I always enjoy your comments John–as long, that is, as I do not try to make any sense out of them–but if you really think it is I who “pick on” Sgt. Schultz, you have got things backwards.

          2. John Barleycorn

            Pro Tip: Don’t ever let some of these guys around here think they have the upper hand or it will go to their heads.

            Keep up the good fight Lawrence. It is critical to keep everyone on their toes around here or the back pages of SJ could devolve into a gigantic circle jerk.

            The esteemed one can still tie his own shoes.

            P.S. I enjoy your thoughts as well. My therapist has been telling me lately that if I could adopt some of your detail and a little bit of your delivery tone and style my parole officer might stop knocking on my door without an appointment.

            Cheers to keeping the peace and keeping the esteemed one motivated enough to keep on keeping on with his front pages regardless of the commotion in the bleachers of his back pages from time to time.

            His patience is often taken for granted but I think we will all miss the show when he pulls the plug on his front pages.

  6. John Barleycorn

    Secondary and Primary Stops?

    Cameras are cool but “reasons” can kill.

    Not very long ago my state decided it was in the best interest of the children to be able to pull a motorist over for a violation of the seat belt law. Formerly you could only cite a motorist for a seal belt infraction as a secondary matter and were not at liberty to pull said motorist over for the seatbelt infraction itself.

    I wonder if primary offenses (we can pull you over because you are a very, very bad man) and secondary offenses (we can’t pull you over because you are only a bad man but not a very, very bad man) are the norm in most states?

    If so, there is room for some push back and lobbying efforts as to what does and does not constitute a grave enough infraction as to merit the stop a motorist.

    Now if you will excuse me I have some broken tail light lenses to send to the chairmen of my states Senate Judiciary Committee.

      1. REvers

        Not just revenue. In my state, a seat belt ticket is a max $5 fine and $15 court costs, by statute. Writing these tickets costs more than the money they collect for it.

        Yet, cops and prosecutors lobbied to make it a primary offense. More reasons to stop means more stops. That, of course, means more chances to search. It’s almost as good a scam as Driving While Black.

        1. John Barleycorn

          A retro-futuristic Traffic Court that shares a building with the DMV could make an outstanding back drop for a comic book series.

          With the right characters and plot twists such a series could plant some seeds.

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