from the officer-sure-to-be-more-careful-to-turn-off-camera-in-the-future dept
Body cameras can’t possibly solve all the problems of current US law enforcement. No single thing can. But even though body cameras have so far proven more useful to prosecutors than lawsuit litigants and accountability efforts, that doesn’t mean they’re mostly useless.
They’re still capable of creating incontrovertible evidence. That’s why prosecutors love them, even if cops don’t. And that’s why one Alabama cop is going to have to face a jury trial, rather than be allowed to bypass a civil rights lawsuit with the application of qualified immunity.
Here are some of the underlying facts, as brought to us (albeit WITHOUT the actual opinion) by CBS affiliate WHNT:
Ronald Edger, a mechanic in Huntsville, was charged with obstructing governmental operations after police were called to a church parking lot where he was fixing a customer’s car at night in 2019.
Reading this, one might assume the act of fixing a car in a parking lot was somehow an act of obstruction. That reading isn’t far off from the reality.
The body cam footage — which was released by the appeals court — shows Officer Krista McCabe rolling up on Edger as he attempted to change a tire on a customer’s Camry. This followed a report by the church security guard who unhelpfully told the Huntsville PD that “two Hispanic males” were “messing with an employee’s car” in the church parking lot.
What could have just been a conversation or, even better, an opportunity for the officer to assist with the repair of the vehicle, instead became a teachable moment for the officers at the scene, who decided to escalate the situation rather than allow a man to work on a car unmolested.
Here’s how that escalation went, as detailed in the Eleventh Circuit Appeals Court decision [PDF]:
Officer McCabe: What are y’all doing?
Mr. Edger: Getting the car fixed.
Officer McCabe: Is this your car?
Mr. Edger: Yeah, well, it is one of my customer’s.
Officer McCabe: One of your customer’s?
Mr. Edger: Ghosh Patel, yep. I was over here earlier.
Officer McCabe then asked who the black hatchback in the parking lot belonged to. Edger confirmed it was his. The officer continued to watch Edger attempt to change the tire. A few seconds after this period of questioning, the Camry slipped off the jack. A few seconds after that, Officer Cameron Perillat arrived.
Officer McCabe then demanded Edger show her some ID. Edger protested, saying he didn’t believe he was obligated to provide identification, did not desire to be “run in” for anything, and asked the officers to call the person that had authorized him to work on her car.
Edger’s minimal assertion of his rights led directly to this:
In the middle of Mr. Edger’s sentence, as he was attempting to explain the situation to Officer McCabe, Officer Perillat seized Mr. Edger from behind. He led Mr. Edger to the side of the Camry and started handcuffing him. As Mr. Edger protested, Officer Perillat told Mr. Edger: “We don’t have time for this,” and, “You don’t understand the law.” During this time, the video shows that Mr. Edger offered his driver’s license at least three times before the officers could finish handcuffing him. Eventually, the officers managed to handcuff and search Mr. Edger, and then detain him in a squad car. Throughout this process, the officers never asked Mr. Edger or his stepson for their names or addresses.
During this last bit of escalation, Edger did all he could to comply with mostly-unspoken demands. The officers refused to let him comply with the law they later accused him of breaking. Edger was charged with obstruction. The city prosecutor — presumably after viewing the recorded evidence from the body cams — dropped the charges.
The lower court said the officers did nothing wrong. Well, it said the officers did nothing wrong in terms of established precedent. They could have honestly believed Edger’s actions were obstruction and that belief, no matter how incorrect, was enough to support the officers’ requests for immunity.
In front of the appeals court, the officers argued it was more than the (forcible) “failure” to identify that supported the obstruction charge the prosecutor found unsupportable. It was also Edger’s actions after being hassled by these two cops, including the supposed “fact” that he was “aggressive” and attempted to “intimidate” the officers. The court disagrees: according to the statute, the officers need more than someone else’s words and non-violent non-compliance to satisfy an obstruction charge.
Fine, said the sued cops: he also physically threatened us. Oh, yeah? says the Eleventh Circuit. Show us on the tape where that happened.
Second, the defendants suggest that Mr. Edger physically threatened Officer McCabe in the moments following the Camry slipping off the jack and hitting the ground because he “jumped up” and “waved his hands,” among other things. But the video evidence in this case speaks for itself. […]
The final interaction between Mr. Edger and Officers McCabe and Perillat is depicted from four separate angles on four separate cameras—two body-worn police cameras and two dash cameras. In each video, the Camry slips off the jack, slamming into the ground in front of Mr. Edger. In each, he stands up, slapping his leg, and turns to answer Officer McCabe’s questions. Though he is clearly frustrated and gesturing as he speaks, his hands are empty. He stands in one spot without walking towards Officer McCabe. Looking to all the facts within the officer’s knowledge at the time of the incident, no reasonable officer could have observed Mr. Edger and believed he was using “intimidation” or “physical force” to “intentionally obstruct” Officer McCabe’s investigation. Accordingly, no reasonable police officer could believe that Mr. Edger violated this portion of the obstruction statute, and therefore there was not even arguable probable cause—much less actual probable cause—to support Mr. Edger’s arrest.
And that means:
This theory does not support the grant of qualified immunity to the officers.
As for the “failure to identify” speculation offered by the officers in their defense, the court says the state law doesn’t require what the cops wish it required.
[T]he Alabama statute is clear. It lists only three things that the police may ask about. This is not an issue of “magic words” that must be uttered. There is a difference between asking for specific information: “What is your name? Where do you live?” and demanding a physical license or ID. The information contained in a driver’s license goes beyond the information required to be revealed under § 15-5-30.
[N]either the parties nor our own research can identify any Alabama law that generally requires the public to carry physical identification—much less an Alabama law requiring them to produce it upon demand of a police officer.
The rest follows logically: you can’t have qualified immunity when you arrest someone who hasn’t committed a crime.
[I]t has been clearly established for decades prior to Mr. Edger’s arrest that the police are free to ask questions, and the public is free to ignore them. It has been clearly established prior to Mr. Edger’s arrest that any legal obligation to speak to the police and answer their questions arises as a matter of state law. And the state statute itself in this case is clear and requires no additional construction: police are empowered to demand from an individual three things: “name, address and an explanation of his actions.” Ala. Code § 15-5-30. It was thus clearly established at the time of Mr. Edger’s arrest that she could not demand he produce physical identification.
No criminal acts but the ones the officers committed. Violating rights is a criminal act, even if it’s usually resolved through civil lawsuits. Neither officer walks away from this lawsuit. And it’s all thanks to the four cameras owned and operated by these officers that captured this set of rights violations. While we can hope a decision like this might encourage cops to be more respectful of rights, I’m pretty sure it’s just going to teach them to be more careful about what gets caught on tape.
Filed Under: body camera, cameron perillat, huntsville, huntsville pd, krista mccabe, qualified immunity, ronald edger
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