Saturday, February 5, 2011

Above the Law

(In my best movie voice-over guy voice)

Imagine a world where criminal acts run rampant; a world where the line between good and bad is blurred; a world where crime goes unpunished...

There are those who stand in the way of justice, and no one can do a thing to stop them...

Unfortunately, that isn't the lead-in for a new Steven Seagal movie (although I really should do a Seagal marathon one of these days). That is actually the very real world we live in right now. And the "crimes" that go unpunished are committed every year by those sworn to protect and uphold the law.

Now give me a second to explain. There aren't Orwellian armies of jack-booted thugs wiping the streets clean of jay-walkers or litterers. And we're not in a state of martial law, where curfews are enforced at the end of a M-16. But there are instances reported daily of police officers who abuse the authority that a badge and a gun grant them; and examples of prosecutors and District Attorneys choosing not to charge said officers.

How can those who are supposed to "protect and serve" the community get away with criminal acts? The answer is something called qualified immunity. The U.S. Supreme Court created the doctrine of qualified immunity to shield "government officials from liability for the violation of an individual's federal constitutional rights." This means that a police officer or other public official can not be responsible for infringing on someone's rights if it is not commonly known at the time that said action is unconstitutional.

The present idea of qualified immunity was established in the case Pearson v. Callahan. The Supreme Court overturned a previous decision (Saucier v. Katz) that declared in cases of immunity a process must be followed: "first deciding the constitutionality and then deciding if the law had been unclear enough for officers not to be liable." Now, after the Pearson case, that two-step process was strictly advisory. If there is any doubt to the legality of a law at the time of breaking it, these special class of officials are not held liable the same way an average citizen would be.

Qualifying immunity is most often seen in cases involving the 4th and 5th amendments. The 4th amendment deals with a person's right to be secure in their person and property against searches and seizures. The 5th amendment ensures that a person may not lay down evidence that would in turn implicate him in a crime, and that they cannot be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process.

Take, for example, the murder of Eurie Stamps. While serving a warrant on Stamps' residence for targets who Stamps was not, "a firearm was discharged by a SWAT team member and a round struck a resident," says a police report. If this was an encounter between two average citizens, a "discharged firearm" would be a fired gun and a "round [striking] a resident" would equate to assault with a deadly weapon, later to be manslaughter or even murder upon Stamps being killed.

However, in this instance, none of the SWAT team members were brought up on weapons charges, nor will any likely be held accountable on criminal charges for Stamps' death. A man was killed, and for what? A poorly executed drug raid?

While the job of a police officer can be a stressful and difficult job at times, the citizenry trusts that those who wear the badge are capable of handling the stress of the job for which they willingly apply. Nobody is putting the gun to one's head and forcing him to become a police officer. More accountability--remove sovereign immunity, equal if not stiffer penalties for laws broken by officers, penalties on prosecutors that don't charge officers--for the job would do nothing but help police officers. If a police officer is truly justified in the actions he or she takes, then there would be no problem in acquitting them of all charges. Perhaps these actions will help shape the strong arm of the law from Mjöllnir to more of a carpenter's hammer.

Despite our infatuation for heroes like Dirty Harry Callahan and Axel Foley, everyone (including "criminals") has rights that cannot be violated. The police enforce the law; they are not above the law.

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