The Hanlon’s Razor Defense

On retrial after a 10-2 hung jury, Madison, Alabama police officer Eric Parker has focused his defense on its core issue: Sureshbhai Patel had it coming to him.

The first trial of Officer Eric Parker ended in a hung jury last month. This time both sides focused much of their opening arguments on the actions of the victim, Sureshbhai Patel, in the moments before the takedown.

Defense attorney Robert Tuten this time told the jury that the escalation of force was largely the fault of Patel.

“When you come to the U.S. we expect you to follow our laws and speak our language,” said Tuten. “Mr. Patel bears as much responsibility for this as anyone.”

Follow our laws? Well, sure. Not that being Indian and walking in a white neighborhood in Alabama is specifically a crime, but that’s where the second condition comes into play: speak our language.

Outrageous?  Offensive? Unacceptable?

Hold yer horses, comrade. Much as the very suggestion that Parker’s takedown of Patel, causing horrible injuries, could possibly be justified, no less result in an acquittal, Robert Tuten’s defense has to be viewed through the lens of his duty to his client.

But Tuten told a very different story about Patel. He pointed out Patel had visited his son off and on and had spent about eight months in the United States before arriving a few days before the Feb. 6 takedown.

Tuten said Patel recognized the police, but walked off anyway . “He refused to take his hands out of his pockets,” said Tuten.

Tuten argued that police can’t know if a person is reaching for a gun or a knife or a razor blade. He said police are trained to control the hands for officer safety.

“There are people out there in the world that will kill a police officer just because they are a cop,” Tuten told the jury.

So Parker was confronted with a potential threat, as viewed through his cop-eyes. But what of the fact that Patel made it abundantly clear that he didn’t speak English?

He added: “It’s unfortunate that he didn’t speak English. But in America that’s the language that we speak.”

Or to be more precise, that’s the language Parker spoke, and isn’t that all that matters when you look at this from Parker’s point of view?

Tuten told the jury that if Patel had cooperated then police could have determined there was no crime and let him go. Tuten spoke of police “survival training,” telling the jury: “In any situation if someone resists they are going to the ground.”

Blind people ought to see. Deaf people ought to hear. And people who speak Gujarati ought to speak English. At least if they’re going to be walking around in Alabama. After all, is it Parker’s fault he doesn’t speak Gujarati?

Ironically, it’s a valid defense.  It’s not an unlawful defense. It’s not an unethical defense, at least in terms of legal ethics even if your vision of higher order ethics varies.  And it has a good chance of working, as demonstrated by the 10-2 hung jury, with ten for acquittal.  That Parker is a cop doesn’t mean he should be denied a defense at trial, any more than anyone else. And Tuten is doing his job of providing it with zeal.

The core of the defense, however, isn’t that Patel did anything to actually present a threat to Parker.  Even putting his hands into his pockets is a long way from taking a weapon out of his pockets, which would present an entirely different scenario.  Nor is it the assumption that he understood enough English to know better than to walk away from Parker, as it could well have been clear to Patel, who was firmly planted on the good guy curve, that he did his best to explain he wasn’t an ax murderer, and was done with the encounter.

As for the myth beloved by the Supreme Court that people have a right to walk away from a Terry stop when there is no reasonable, articulable suspicion that crime is afoot, well, the clash of police safety against all things we find holy never did explain adequately how that would work out. The answer is, for Patel at least, with a good spine-crushing.  Stercus accidit.

As prosecutors love to remind defense lawyers, defendants are presumed innocent, not intelligent. And that goes for cop defendants as well.  So Parker was a moron, who just couldn’t grasp that speaking English louder or slower wasn’t going to change the fact that Patel spoke Gujarati?  So Parker kept giving orders in English, and took Patel out because he just didn’t do as he was told?

What about Parker? So what if he’s a moron, as even morons are allowed to be afraid of thin, elderly Indian guys whose only offense is taking a walk in Alabama?  He could have been a killer, a child molester, A TERRORIST!  It could happen.

Remember, the law that applies to police officers isn’t the same as that which applies to mere mortals. When police use force, it can only be viewed through the prism of the reasonable police officer. It doesn’t matter that jurors find Parker’s actions wrong, because they don’t have the training and experience a cop has.  It requires a cop to tell them whether it was reasonable.

But parallel to the spectrum of reasonable police conduct is another concept, Hanlon’s Razor:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

And there is overwhelming evidence that Parker is as stupid as they come.  Any fool should have realized that the problem wasn’t that Patel was threatening Parker, but that Patel was unable to explain himself to Parker because he didn’t understand or speak English. But being a fool isn’t the same as being a criminal.  We have not (yet) criminalized Stupidity in the First Degree.  And we should all thank God for that.

The only question is whether it’s reasonable, even from the reasonable cop perspective, to be as stupid as Parker.  That’s a question for the jury to answer, and, of course, it will depend in large measure on just how stupid they think he is given that “in America [English is] the language that we speak.”  Don’t be surprised when the jury returns a two word verdict because they find that Parker’s level of stupid is within the bounds of the reasonable police officer.



10 thoughts on “The Hanlon’s Razor Defense

  1. Dave

    So the question then is why we allow such stupid people to walk around with badges and guns in the first place.

    And thus is proposed a constitutional amendment setting minimum intelligence required to be a police officer. And if an officer too stupid slips through and gets hired as a cop anyway, the amendment strips from that officer all possible defenses as a police officer and treats them as an ordinary citizen when it comes to prosecution. (And then I woke up from my fever dream, bleary-eyed and thirsty.)

        1. mb

          I asked a legitimate question about how he envisions the process. I’ve been led to understand that high ranking government officials who used to teach Constitutional Law have the ability to determine whether police have acted stupidly without knowing any of the relevant facts. If Dave’s comment was tongue in cheek, or just spouting off, it certainly looks like a genuine proposal for a Constitutional amendment.

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    1. MEF

      Police agencies specifically recruit the Parkers of the world to be police officers.

      Their given reason is because more intelligent candidates will become bored with police work thus wasting the money the agencies have invested in their training.

      Many though believe the agencies’ real motivation is that those of lesser intelligence are less likely to be free thinkers and more prone to follow orders.

      [Ed. Note: Link deleted per rules.]

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