The Police Traffic Stop Ethics Dilemma

Coltin LeBlanc

The Kim Potter trial in Minnesota has focused special attention on the recurring incidence of police shootings of motorists after traffic stops. Potter, now an ex-cop, fatally shot Daunte Wright when he appeared to be preparing to flee the stop, because she mistakenly drew her gun and fired it instead of her taser. The news media, as usual, is pre-biased against the police, and its analyses have reflected that, despite the fact that stopping a car has frequently proven fatal for many police officers, and there is ample justification for heightened caution and suspicion when approaching a stopped vehicle. The Washington Post unhelpfully issued a fatuous editorial headlined, “Being pulled over for a broken taillight shouldn’t end in death. Too often, it does.” Yes, indeed it does, and this is virtually always because of a combination of uncooperative and alarming behavior by the motorist and a mistaken, excessive, or poor choice of a response by police in the split second the officer has to assess the situation and act.

One way to prevent what “should” never happen is for police to just allow infractions on the highway and never stop cars. That would work. It would also result in some highway deaths caused by the uninhibited law-breaker that “shouldn’t happen,” but there are prices for everything. This is where law enforcement policy will soon arrive if the anti-police lobby gets its way and police are fired and prosecuted every time a driver sets in motion a sequence that ends in his or her own death.

The New York Times, in a thorough, if slanted, investigation of such police-involved shootings, reported that an officer’s chances of being killed at any vehicle stop are less than 1 in 3.6 million. About sixty police officers died after pulling over motorists since 2016, with ten dying so far this year in traffic interactions. If you are a police officer who makes traffic stops, which statement resonates more:

  • Ten police have died this year making traffic stops, or
  • The chances of getting killed making a traffic stop are 3.6 million to 1.?

The Times quotes an experts who says that “hidebound training” makes police approach stopped cars with “a confrontational stance.” “The fear is excessive,” one expert told the Times. “The more fear officers feel, the more aggressive they become.” I guess they should never watch “Fargo.”

The Times uses the traffic stop death of Coltin Le Blanc (above), shot dead by an officer September 27, 2018 during a traffic stop in Hammond, Louisiana, as an example of how police are often at fault for such tragedies. (There are several other fatal scenarios covered too; all are different.) The trooper stopped Le Blanc and informs him of why he was stopped. When he returns to his truck to get his license, as observed by the officer standing within the open vehicle door, it was apparent to the trooper that Le Blanc was going to flee: he pushed the brake and shifted gears. Believing the driver was drunk and posed a danger to the public on the road, the officer grabbed the open door and issued multiple commands to the driver to stop. Le Blanc did not, and the officer opened fire, killing the young man.

The officer was neither disciplined nor tried, but the Times suggests that he was at fault.

Asked by State Police investigators why he had jumped on the door, the officer told them he believed  LeBlanc was intoxicated and he wanted “to stop the vehicle, to stop the driver, to stop him from killing somebody.”

“If the guy drives away — could it be bad? Yeah, absolutely,” Jon Blum, a former officer who writes training curricula for police departments across the country tells the Times. “But is it worth jumping into the car to get possibly run over or killed doing it? Nope.”

OK. But the officer did do it, in the heat of the moment with an unexpected development. Then what?

Seth Stoughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina and a former police officer who advocates rolling back the film, concludes that the officer was at fault, saying,

“He created a situation where there was an imminent threat of death or great bodily harm to deal with the situation where there wasn’t. If you jump onto a moving car, it’s foreseeable that you’re going to end up shooting the person.”

But Lewis “Von” Kliem, a former officer and a lawyer with a police training company called the Force Science Institute, wrote  that penalizing the police for officer-created jeopardy unjustly relieves the suspect of responsibility while ignoring the fact that officers must improvise, and every choice cannot be the best, least risky or, in retrospect, the wisest. “People too often imagine a level of certainty that simply does not exist in dynamic and unpredictable human interactions,” he wrote to the Times, objecting to Stoughton’s analysis.

I believe Kliem has the better of the two approaches. As with the police shooting that do not involve automobiles, the single factor that would make these incidents impossible would be if the suspect followed officers’ lawful directions and did not attempt to resist, obstruct, or flee. When a police officer reacts to a situation created by the suspect and the result is a shooting, the police officer should always be accorded the benefit of the doubt. Choices made in the midst of “dynamic” situations that are clearly motivated by the officer’s sincere desire to do his or her job, protect the public, and avoid injury to himself or others should not lead to prosecution, even if, in hindsight analysis, such a choice is judged as a mistake.

Authorities, the public and journalists must not presumed malign intent or, worse, tilt the benefit of the doubt and presumption of good will to a victim who in one way or another set in motion the forces that led to his death by defying authority and breaking the law. The problem with this standard is that it is essentially the standard that had been followed by police departments, investigators, prosecutors and juries right up until “Hands up! Don’t shoot!,” a fabricated account of a legitimate police shooting, began making a policeman’s lot, not just an unhappy one, but an impossible one.

And yes, I realize the implications of this conclusion. As I have mentioned here before, my own son endangered lives, including his own, when he led state police on high speed chase shortly after turning 18. He was stopped by a road black and a helicopter and arrested at gun-point. A few years later, trying to recall what the hell he was thinking (he wasn’t thinking), my son told me, “I was lucky I wasn’t shot.”

“Yes,” I said. “And if you were shot, it would have been nobody’s fault but your own.” His response?

“I know.”

Good.

_________________________

Sources: Washington Post; New York Times 1, 2.

 

8 thoughts on “The Police Traffic Stop Ethics Dilemma

  1. I’ve been following the Kim Potter trial off and on the last couple of days. The most interesting testimony so far was that of the officer who was struggling with the driver trying to gain control of the gear shift and the key from the passenger side of the car (while laying across the passenger). He stated that since he would have been at great risk of serious injury or death if the driver was able to get the car moving, officer Potter was legally allowed to use deadly force to stop the fleeing driver (which she accidentally did). That seems right to me (and similar to Coltin Le Blanc circumstances). So, why were charges filed?

    • Not securing the keys before removing Daunte from the car was a major tactical mistake. Many departments will do that. It stops them from driving off if they change their mind in the process of getting out.

  2. “Being pulled over for a broken taillight shouldn’t end in death. Too often, it does.”

    I’ve followed this case since jury selection. And boy howdy this one has been dry… Some of the more interesting parts of this were probably the jury selection… by the third day of jury selection the state had used all their unqualified passes, so they had to let through a finance guy who LARPs with a battleaxe on the weekends and had some very pro-defense inclinations, as an example. There was also an ACAB activist who tried to lie to sneak onto the jury, but Earl Grey (the lawyer’s actual name) had scoured all the potential jurists social media feeds and fed her back quotes about how cops should be shot. The shock in the potential jurists voice and the immediate change in her demeanor was delicious.

    And so I think that I’ve seen at least what the jury has in this case. The only thing they’ve kept from the feeds are the pictures of the deceased, and I’m pretty sure they’re doing that because Daunte’s pants slid off during first aid and they didn’t want his junk on primetime. Empathetically: Daunte was not shot over for a busted taillight.

    He was pulled over because he had an air freshener hanging off the rearview. Apparently this is a ticketable offense in some jurisdictions. But I’m not sure that he actually would have been ticketed for the tree… Things like that are often pretenses to see if you can find more. And boy howdy, did they.

    Before they got out of their car, for instance, they knew that the tags on the vehicle’s insurance was expired. When they interacted with Duante, Duante told them he didn’t have his license on him, but he gave them his name, date of birth, and some other information. The officers noted the strong smell of marijuana and saw some bud in the console. They went back to the car and were able to surmise a few things:

    1) The car was not in fact insured. (They didn’t know this at the time, but it hadn’t been for years)
    2) Daunte did not have a driver’s license. (They didn’t know this at the time, but he never had)
    3) Daunte had an outstanding warrant for a weapons violation. (They didn’t know this at the time, but he tried to extort rent money out of a tenant at gunpoint.)
    4) Daunte also had a restraining order out against him from his ex-girlfriend, and there was a female passenger in the car.
    5) Marijuana is still fully illegal in Minnesota.

    Have we mentioned that Daunte was 20? I’m sure that a year or two down the road, this upstanding young citizen would be making all kinds of headlines.

    So the officers decided to make an arrest. They asked Duante to get out of the car, and he did, Officer Luckey tried to cuff Daunte, but Daunte slipped him and got into the car. Officer Johnson reached into the car through the passenger door and held the gearshift in park while Luckey struggled with wright. Officer Potter grabbed her gun and said “I’m going to taze you.” waited two seconds “I’m going to taze you”, a second “tazer tazer tazer” and shot Daunte once in the chest, collapsing both lungs and bursting his heart. Daunte shifted the car into drive and died with his foot on the gas, his vehicle veered into oncoming traffic and struck the vehicle of two elderly individuals.

    Daunte wasn’t shot “Being pulled over for a broken taillight.” He wasn’t shot for the tree. He was pulled over for the tree. He was going to be arrested on his outstanding warrant. And then he was shot because he tried to take off in a vehicle from an arrest that was legitimate.

    Moving past there… A couple of things stand out:

    First: Daunte Wright was a drug dealer. I’m usually permissive about drug related infractions, but the law is the law. One of the pieces of evidence that was kept from the jury is that Daunte had a pot scale and paraphernalia in the car. This needs to be contextually coupled with his outstanding warrant, lack of a license, and lack of vehicle registration. Daunte’s mother testified that Daunte called while the officers were running his info and was worried about the vehicle tags. Can we all just take a second to step back and appreciate the perjury? Of course, I don’t *know* for certain that that isn’t what Daunte said… But they were all aware of his criminality. The car’s *tags* are what you were worried about? Also worth note: Daunte’s blood tests came back positive (and on the high side of the scale, no pun indented) for TCH. He was driving high as a kite.

    Second: The officers had a whole bunch of wonderful reasons not to let him drive away: he wasn’t insured, he wasn’t licensed, he had outstanding warrants, he was probably high, there was a female passenger in the car, and she could have been the person who had the restraining order against him, and probably a dozen other things that I either don’t know the intricacies of law to describe or are kind of chincey. The prosecution is arguing that the officers could have let Daunte drive off. Sure they could have, but at what point do you close the PD and call it a day then? If you can’t arrest scum like Daunte Wright because he’s in a car and the car could be dangerous, then you might as well just put a lid on law enforcement.

    And you know who else could have done something to prevent the death of Duante Wright? Daunte.

    Daunte could have gotten a license. He could have insured his car. He could have walked. He could have bussed. He could have not tried to threaten a tenant with a gun. He could have not beaten his ex. He could have complied with the arrest that he knew was legitimate. This all seems orders of magnitude more reasonable than “They should have let the uninsured, unlicensed, high as a kite, girlfriend-beating drug dealer with outstanding warrants for weapons violations drive away because he resisted arrest”.

    I’d make a great juror.

    Daunte Wright was not killed because of an air freshener. He was killed because the totality of his actions put him on a crash course with mortality. This was never an individual destined to die old.

    • Sorry… The most obvious thing I missed: “tazer tazer tazer” and then gunshot.

      This is the crux of the prosecution’s argument. No one is assuming that she meant to shoot him and was shouting false instructions. The prosecution hasn’t stipulated it, but you can tell from their questions that they’ve given up on this not being an accident. The entire interaction from “please step out of the car” to the single shot was 32 seconds, there’s muscle memory involved, and it was a high-stress interaction. It’s also obvious she thought she was holding the tazer for a couple of other reasons: She pulled the trigger once, which is standard for a tazer but not a gun, and her reaction was too immediate and emotional, in my opinion, not to be legitimate.

      Once you get past this being intentional, there are two arguments:

      The state is arguing that Potter acted recklessly, that she had training enough and the weapons were different enough that she should never have drawn the wrong weapon. They’re also arguing that shooting into a car is reckless, because regardless of whether the weapon is a tazer or a gun, the person you shoot could seize or slump and put his foot on the gas, and that creates a dangerous situation, not only for the person you shoot, but the passenger of the car, oncoming traffic, and yourself. This argument, I think, is weak… Policy wouldn’t have held the officers responsible had they backed off, but policework is risky, and to an extent, we need them to make decisions like this in order to arrest the people that don’t go along quietly… Which I assume is most of them.

      The defense is arguing that while Potter obviously meant to grab the taser instead of the gun, the facts of the case are such that Potter could have grabbed the gun and been justified in shooting Daunte. This is, I think, convincing, especially seeing as how the defense has gotten three of the prosecution’s witnesses to say so. The state is trying a narrative that is almost textbook cumulative (from my lay Googling of the term after Earl Grey made the “cumulative” objection for the 6th time, which I’d never heard before.) and beside the dangers of a mistrial, part of the problem with calling half of the entire police department to say the same damn things is that some of them won’t be sympathetic to your actions, they see themselves in that situation, and damn right, they’d have done the same thing.

      And it bears note… These are all criminal arguments. I’m of the opinion that Potter and/or the BCPD will end up paying civilly.

  3. I view the case as a knot of logic. If Potter had intended to shoot Wright, I don’t think she would be charged. Wright was attempting to drive off with the other officer half in the car. That meets the criteria justified deadly force in the defense of another.

    There was a police shooting last spring in Vancouver, WA (a suburb of Portland, OR) that matched the scenario. A traffic stop of a black motorist for a broken taillight turned into a shooting. The officers thought the man had a gun, but it turned out he didn’t. The officers were struggling with the guy, and the car started to move. One of the officers shot the motorist, and the shooting was deemed justified by an outside prosecutor.
    https://www.opb.org/article/2021/02/12/jenoah-donald-clark-county-sheriffs-office-shooting-death/

    As a juror, I would have a really hard time convicting based on the fact that lethal force was justified. Just because less than lethal was intended, doesn’t negate the fact that the officer was acting in the defense of the life of the other officer. My anti-cop stance is well known here, but this officer should walk.

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