The Supreme Court Rulings Untethering Police From The Law

Written By: Anton Sawyer

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When watching both the political left and right battle it out over whether we should defund the police, increase funding, minimize the military surplus products they get to use, there's one overriding element they forget. The Supreme Court has the power to change these rules and regulations. During the new millennium, there have been a few rulings on cases that impacts every American citizen.

statue of lady justice on the floor and broken

This is not going to be an article about race and police violence, though there will most definitely be writings about it in the future.


The reason for the attention shift from that scourge is because as we have seen in 2020, there are millions of people who will not act upon anything unless it directly impacts them.


This article is for them.


For many, it's easy to cast someone who is of a different race as a criminal being punished for their wrongdoings and side with the police as being heroes. It's imperative to let those individuals know that the deck is just as stacked against them as it is for anyone else.


There are two Supreme Court rulings which have changed the entire dynamic between the police and average citizens.


The first happened on June 27th, 2005 in the case of Castle Rock v. Gonzales.


In this case, Jessica Gonzales contacted the police in an attempt to arrest her estranged husband, Simon Gonzales, for kidnapping their three children while they were playing outside. She had a court-issued protective order and wanted them to enforce it.


They didn't.


Eventually, Mr. Gonzales arrived at the police station and began shooting inside. There was a legal precedent set in a similar case in 1989 (DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services) where the U.S. Supreme Court held that the failure by government workers to protect someone from physical violence or harm from another person wasn't Constitutional. Mrs. Gonzales' attorneys presented this case by framing it that she had a property interest within the 14th Amendments' Due Process clause. The Supreme Court disagreed. The Court went on to rule "that there is no affirmative right to aid by the government or the police found in the U.S. Constitution, and thus no legal recourse could be brought thereunder." What all of this legal gobbledygook means is that per the Supreme Court, United States police officers are not legally bound to "protect and serve." In his written statement, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, "Our cases recognize that a benefit is not a protected entitlement if government officials may grant or deny it in their discretion."


What this means that the police force is not actually designed to help anyone at all if the situation isn't leading to a crime or is an event in which they wouldn't be forced to act regardless.


An example would be if a cop is driving down the streets and then sees someone lying on the ground with their head bleeding. Because they aren't witnessing an actual crime occurring, the police officer doesn't have to stop or even look in that direction.


I'm fully aware there's going to be a lot of agreeance about this ruling because most people understand that the police are not babysitters. They have an incredibly challenging job with enough on their plates. The last thing they need is to go out of their purview in an attempt to help someone in a way that may end up being more legally detrimental. So I understand where the logic comes from. However, it's when you take the "protect and serve" matter and combine it with the second Supreme Court ruling that makes the situation horrible for the everyday average Joe.


Heien v. North Carolina, the second game changer, was a five-year-long case decided on December 15th, 2014, and was one that set a legal precedent where the police are not required to know the law before taking action against someone. The police officer pulled a car over containing Nicholas Heien (who was asleep in the backseat), and driver Maynor Vasquez because of a broken brake light. In North Carolina, you are only required to have one working "stop lamp," which the automobile had. The stop itself was then inappropriate. During the stop, the police officer found cocaine and arrested the two men. After going through local courts in North Carolina, the appellate courts, and all other legal stops along the way before reaching the Supreme Court, the same argument was made time and time again: the stop was illegal, therefore anything stemming from that stop should be inadmissible. The Supreme Court disagreed. With their ruling, they determined that if a police officer doesn't know the law, and admits in court they weren't sure of the exact law, it doesn't matter. For this specific case it meant that though they were stopped illegally, both Vasquez and Heien were found guilty for the cocaine possession.


We can argue the morality of whether or not those two men should have been arrested for the cocaine and the potential societal effects it might have, but the law and the numbers don't lie when it comes to seeing how these two rulings can make anyone completely lose faith in those who we've been told to trust throughout our lives.


According to Henry A. Wallace Police Crime Database, along with the Washington Post's police shooting database, between the years of 2005 and 2014, there were around 1,000 people fatally shot every year by police officers. Yet, only 110 officers nationwide during that near-decade were charged with murder or manslaughter during an on-duty shooting. That is a ratio of approximately 110 to 9,000. Out of those 110 charges, only 42 officers were convicted. It could be said that these shootings are unrelated to the above cases. But it's also absurd to think that with all of those shootings and officers involved, that there was not a single cop who didn't feel enabled knowing the highest court in the land will have their back.


We have learned that ignorance of the law is a valid defense for law enforcement in a court case, but is not a valid defense if you are an average citizen. The police are allowed now to tie searches and seizures together with an illegal stop and have those elements be admissible. Between the police not being held to the same accountability that the rest of us do in a legal sense. Along with it being made abundantly aware that cops are not required to protect their charges, and ignorance of law being accepted as a valid defense by the highest court in the land, there is no faith.


All of the above has nothing to do with color. I understand that there have been a tremendous amount of people of color who have been murdered, with millions of witnesses via technology, but the above mentioned legal precedents are an umbrella for all. I know there will be a large swath of individuals who think these kinds of things won't happen to them because they are "good people."


If you do think that ... just wait. I'm sure at some point that an extensive amount of the population will get pulled over or stopped by law enforcement for breaking a law that both you and the officer were unaware of its non-existence.

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