Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Show Trial for a Pedestrian 'Crime'

Let's get this much straight, members of the press. Riding an unlighted bicycle at night isn't a "crime" in Florida. It's a "noncriminal traffic infraction."
In the case of the tragic death of 17-year old Victor Steen, who was run over by a patrol car as it chased him on and off the streets of his own neighborhood, Pensacola's police department may have a county judge on its side. But quite a bit higher up in the legal food chain the department is facing the prospect of an expensive civil suit spearheaded by the Levin Law firm.

We're putting our money on the Levin Law firm. When those in charge of enforcing the law ignore or subvert it for the sake of some imaginary "blue line" of immunity, there's no avenue for justice left except a civil law suit.

Yesterday, County Judge John Simon filed his so-called "verdict" in the inquest hearing. Functionally, the "verdict" really works as a non-binding recommendation to the same state's attorney office which passed the hot potato to the judge in the first place.

This is the self-same state's attorney office, by the way, that has exclusive power to produce (or not) all the potential evidence at the inquest free from bothersome inconveniences like cross-examination by an opposing lawyer, objections to incompetent, inadmissible, or unreliable evidence, and counter-evidence coming from another side.

Such an inquest, sad to say, more closely resembles a political show trial than a fundamentally fair judicial proceeding. Like a show trial, it provides cover for the more politically powerful principals involved and hots-up the booboisie and message board mavens who might, just might, be selected for the jury pool when the city gets sued. Viewed from one perspective, the entire charade can be seen as serving the local government's anticipated defense of the hugely expensive civil rights and wrongful death suit which everyone knows is coming.

Shortly after the county judge's decision was released yesterday, attorneys Bill Cash and Aaron Watson made a brief appearance with Steen's mother outside the federal courthouse to speak with the press. As we earlier surmised might be the case, the lawyers for the dead boy's estate focused on the same excuse for chasing and killing Steen with a patrol car which the prosecutor offered at the inquest: young Steen was riding a bike with no lights.

In an early dispatch posted yesterday on the Pensacola News Journal web site, one reporter wrote:
Watson noted in details several policies that Pensacola police officers are required to read and sign in their training to become officers with the department. These policies will likely become part of his argument that [Jerald] Ard ignored long-standing policies within the agency when he pursued the teen.

Most notable were passages that refer to when and how officers are allowed to conduct a chase.

"A pursuit will be terminated when the individual officer or any supervisor determines that the risk that the injury has increased and is outweighed by the desirability or the necessity of the apprehension," one of the policies reads.

"Victor Steen didn’t have a light on his bike," Watson wondered aloud.

The lack of light on Steen’s bicycle was cited by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Florida Highway Patrol as the only crime Steen had clearly committed before he fled.
A later report avoids reference to "the only crime" of Steen and substitutes instead, "He had not committed a crime prior to the officer encountering him." But the damge has been done.

Let's get this much straight, members of the press. Riding an unlighted bicycle at night isn't a "crime" in Florida. It's a "noncriminal traffic infraction" which Florida state law expressly makes equivalent to jay-walking.

Under that law, many more reasonable alternatives to killing young Steen were available to officer Ard, starting with ignoring it -- as we have noticed the local constabulary almost always does. For other examples, he could have followed state law and issued --
a bicycle safety brochure and a verbal warning to a bicycle rider or passenger who violates this subsection. A bicycle rider or passenger who violates this subsection may be issued a citation by a law enforcement officer and assessed a fine for a pedestrian violation... .
That officer Ard would endanger an innocent boy with no record of past misconduct, innocent passers-by, and even himself by deliberately engaging in a dangerous high-speed chase just to make "a citizen contact" shocks the conscience. Indeed, so far as Ard knew, no crime had been committed by anyone.

However, officer Ard likely isn't the only one who should be blamed for the tragic outcome of this "citizen contact." Face it: many cops aren't rocket scientists. Some are hot-dogs who thrive on the adrenalin rush of a chase. Others habitually dehumanize anyone who's guilty of "being black."

Those are two among many other reasons municipalities are required by federal civil rights law to make sure the on-the-job conduct of all personnel stays within the bounds of the Constitution. They can do this by producing clear and lawful written policies -- and then thoroughly and competently training subordinate policemen how to obey those policies. This is a basic constitutional requirement of all federal, state, and local government officials.

The fundamental idea is that in our society no one acting in an official capacity -- from the President of the United States on down to the local policemen on the beat -- has unfettered discretion to deprive another of "life, liberty or property" without due process of law. They can't just make it up as they go along to satisfy some personal urge or emotion or bias or idiotic fantasy. Superiors in the chain of command must constrain the conduct of subordinates by promulgating and enforcing cognizable standards consistent with the law of the land.

There are some, shall we say, peculiarities evident in the quoted portions of the Pensacola Police Department policy manual that lead us to suspect that when the civil lawsuit is finally filed, officer Ard won't be the only person in the hot seat. Policy makers at the very pinnacle of the Pensacola Police Department also have some serious explaining to do.

Dept. of Amplification
04-07 am
Sean Boone of the Independent News reports the same events. Unfortunately, he also misstates the legal record.

It isn't true that the county judge "found Pensacola Police officer Jerald Ard to not be at fault... ." The Judge's findings are here.

What he found was that the evidence which the State's Attorney office was at liberty to cherry-pick did not establish "probable cause" to believe officer Ard committed "murder" or "manslaughter." That's quite different from finding Ard wasn't at "fault."

But we aren't going to snarl something like "Why can't we have a better press?" All is forgiven.

As we have pointed out before, the arcane "inquest" procedure which the local State's Attorney office chooses to use only when the spotlight is on a policeman's misconduct is a relic of the 12th century. Reporter Sean Boone probably wasn't around back then.


Anonymous said...

It seems every 5 or 10 years the same over-reaction by the Pensacola Police result in serious damage to citizens. I recall some years ago a Naval Cadet in white uniform was shot in the back by a cop whom he ignored. Some things never change. Its the good ole boy climate.

Scovo said...

The trouble with dragging and dragging the case out like this is it makes Pensacola look bad. Everybody would have been better off if the Prosecutor just sent the thing to the Grand Jury and let Justice be done.