The horrific recent death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee was a senseless tragedy that never should have occurred. A mere traffic stop should never result in a vicious, deadly beating at the hands of police officers, whose duties are to do just the opposite: to protect and serve the community and its citizens.
These traffic stops gone bad are all too common, especially between my minority clients and White Pennsylvania State Troopers. Most often, troopers’ actions are not publicized, as most of these stops don’t result in death or serious injury. Thus, state police are able to get away with it.
As I write this, I am thinking about many of my clients who have suffered at the hands of state police officers, clients who were profiled based on their race and criminal history then dragged out of their cars to be illegally arrested, later serving years of pretrial incarceration. My clients have been stopped for expired insurance registrations, driving in the left lane when the right lane was available, tinted windows and broken taillights. Once the police discover that my client has a criminal record, the traffic stops become more aggressive. I have no problem with a brief stop and a traffic citation given to the driver for these offenses, but out of the half dozen recent cases that I am currently handling involving traffic stops of minority clients, they ALL end in an arrest and extensive pretrial incarceration. One of my clients was a passenger in a car where two guns that he did not know about were hidden in the glove box and center console. He served 15 months waiting for his trial and was just found not guilty by a jury.
These illegal arrests violate the constitution under the guise of making the community safer. Communities are not safer when our police violate citizens’ rights and take them away from their jobs and loved ones, causing them to suffer from being imprisoned for a lengthy amount of time while awaiting their day in court. The troopers are poorly trained, and it seems to me that they are rewarded when contraband is found and arrests occur, even when they use illegal tactics to get to that point. What they and our society forget is that these arrestees are human beings with lives that matter; they have a family, children, and jobs. Arresting them and cutting all of this off under circumstances that violate their constitutional rights is never okay.
The common denominator in my clients’ cases is that they all involve White state troopers and minority drivers and passengers. Once the police profile them, they run their tags and criminal histories. If they have any history of gun, drug, or violence convictions (even if these convictions are more than a decade old), the police tend to become very aggressive. Even without any evidence that a crime is occurring or that there is contraband in their cars, the troopers take them out of their car, pat them down for weapons, and eventually search their cars. My clients are afraid to deny consent because the police threaten to get a search warrant even when there is no probable cause to do so.
In one case involving White state troopers who lacked evidence that my African American client had been driving a car that hit a mud bank in his neighborhood, the officer tried to get his wife to state that he did hit the mud bank, the sole evidence being that he had a criminal record; she refused to state false information. The officer then berated my client and his wife, asking them when they were at their home in a Chester County suburb what they were doing in a White neighborhood, also implying that the Constitution did not apply to them. This client spent about two months in jail before he was let out on house arrest and, about two years later, the prosecutor withdrew the case when the racist trooper floundered on the witness stand and testified without any credibility pertaining to his probable cause to arrest my client.
What are some solutions? Changing our policing system by training our police officers to treat people as human beings and only using physical force as a last resort in cases involving violence. The “prosecute, punish and jail” mentality is rarely the best response.
May Tyre Nichols memory be a revolution. I hope that politicians, prosecutors, Judges and others in the criminal justice system will find that this disturbing and illegal behavior by police officers is unacceptable and that officers who engage in such overly aggressive tactics should be held accountable.