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.