Friday, September 9, 2016

Sovereignty and Due Process : A Tale of Two Traffic Stops in Mississippi

by Nomad

Here's a post about two traffic stops in Mississippi and two very different outcomes. How much did race play a factor in how the incidents were handled? When it comes to allegations of police brutality, are we missing the big picture about the violations to every citizen's right to due process?

When Slidell Mississippi police officers pulled over the green Ford Ranger, it was just a routine traffic stop. They had observed the driver violating several traffic laws on Fremaux Avenue.  

It was immediately clear that the driver, 54-year-old James Doyle Webb, was going to be a problem. He refused to give the police his driver’s license, registration or insurance. Instead, he declared himself a "sovereign citizen" and demanded the officers’ names and badge numbers, according to the Slidell police department press release. The police obliged Webb and yet, when the officers again requested to review Webb's papers, he refused to recognize to cooperate in any way.

Webb claimed that, as a sovereign citizen, the police (and indeed, the government) had no legal authority over him.
At this point, according to the police report, things went from non-compliance to something quite a bit more serious.
The officers noticed Webb reaching toward a bag sitting next to him on the front seat. According to the release, the officers felt Webb may have been reaching for something, such as a weapon, and ordered him to exit the vehicle.
Again Webb refused and attempted to roll up his window. After a "brief struggle," Webb was removed from his vehicle and placed under arrest. After his arrest, Webb repeatedly made comments about being an explosives expert.
Upon inspecting the car, the police found a loaded 40 caliber Heckler & Koch handgun in the area where Webb had been reaching. It was, therefore, probably a close call for the police.

“I do feel that the quick actions on the part of the officers may have prevented this incident from escalating into a more dangerous and tragic encounter. Our officers will enforce the laws, including the traffic laws, and will do what is required to keep themselves and the citizens of our community safe”.
It is not clear whether alcohol was involved, but DUI was not one of the charges against Webb.

Above the Law

What about his claim to immunity as a "sovereign citizen "? It isn't some term Webb made up in the heat of the moment and the glare of the blue and red lights.
By golly, it's a movement. If you haven't heard of this before now (I hadn't), here's some basic information.

According to the American Bar Association, the members of the sovereign citizen movement take the position that they are "answerable only to their particular interpretation of the common law and are not subject to any statutes or proceedings at the federalstate, or municipal levels."  

They have openly declared themselves to be outlaws- in the strict meaning of the word. Sure, there are a lot of crackpots out there but, in this instance, the FBI takes the organization/movement very seriously. It has classified the movement as extremist and its adherents as "domestic terrorists."
In surveys conducted in 2014 and 2015, representatives of US law-enforcement ranked the risk of terrorism from the sovereign citizen movement higher than the risk from Islamic extremism.
Six years ago, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reckoned that something around 100,000 Americans were "hard-core sovereign believers."  Naturally, there's no way to verify that since few Americans would admit to being a domestic terrorist. (By 2012, the number had risen to 300,000.) 
The SPLC also notes that  there could be another 200,000 "just starting out by testing sovereign techniques for resisting everything from speeding tickets to drug charges."  

In 2012, CBS News ran an article about an incident in West Memphis, Ark. In that event, a van was pulled over by officers, the driver refused to cooperate when asked for his paperwork. Argumentative, the driver stepped out of the vehicle and declared his sovereignty immunity. At that point, the driver's 16-year-old son, a passenger in the van, brandished an AK-47. Two police officers were gunned down and, in the ensuing gunfight, another two were wounded. Both father and son died. 
For law enforcement attempting to enforce traffic laws, it is a worst case scenario. In Webb's case, things could have turned out very differently. Fortunately for all concerned, things escalated no further than they did. 
American citizens must congratulate the local police for handling the situation so effectively.We can trust that the Mississippi courts will take the matter very seriously. 

The question remains, however, whether local police would have quite as careful had the driver not been white.

One Night in Tupelo

On Saturday evening June 18, Tupelo police pulled over a vehicle driven by 37-year-old Antwun “Ronnie” Shumpert. For whatever reason, Shumpert exited the car and attempted to flee from the scene.

In response, according to attorney Carlos Moore, who’s representing Shumpert’s family, Tupelo Police Officer Tyler Cook released a K-9. The canine soon located Shumpert hiding under a nearby house. 
Moore painted a brutal and senseless attack on an innocent man.
The dog attacked him, gashing a hole through his testicles and scratching him across his body. When the officer found Shumpert, he shot him four times.
The 37-year-old father of five was unarmed. 

According to attorney Moore, Shumpert was also found with injuries to his face and teeth, suggesting that there may have also been a physical altercation between him and the officer.

In addition to the physical evidence, there was reportedly an eyewitness who stated that Shumpert did not instigate violence.
According to his attorney, Schumpert was voluntarily surrendering to the police and coming out of his hiding space when the K-9 violently attacked him in the groin, mutilating his testicles. While Schumpert was attempting to get free from the dog, the officer allegedly walked up and shot him four times — three times in the chest and one time in the stomach.
Following that, the dying Shumpert was handcuffed and transported to the North Mississippi Medical Center where he died a few hours later.

Officer Cook was immediately put on administrative leave during an investigation of the events.
One of the initial questions the attorney for the family wanted answered was: How could a simple traffic stop result in the death of an unarmed driver?
Moore also noted that the officer had a complaint on his record for using excessive force just two months prior to the latest event.

Vindication or Whitewash?

On August 1, a grand jury cleared the officer of any criminal wrongdoing.  The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation was called in to complete an independent investigation, which was monitored by the FBI.
Even before the investigation was complete, the mayor Jason Shelton initially declared the shooting “justified.” 
The African-American community smelled a whitewash in the making.

In a press conference announcing the verdict, District Attorney John Weddle explained that a local motel was under surveillance for drug activity. Shumpert's car was seen in the motel parking lot before being pulled over by police for a faulty tail light.

After being pulled over, the suspect fled despite orders by police to remain in the vehicle. That's something both sides agreed on. However, Weddle stated that, contrary to the family's attorney, the K9 unit had actually inflicted no injuries.   
Weddle refuted claims by Shumpert’s family and their attorney that Shumpert had suffered improper violence at the hands of Cook and a police dog.
The police officer had shot Shumpert out of self-defense. As far as the witness, according to the district attorney, she was wrong and could not have seen what she claims to have seen.
End of story.

The implication that drugs were involved is somewhat complicated by the fact that no drugs were found in the car driven by Shumpert. A passenger in the car- who was also the owner of the car- was questioned and release without drug charges. The suggestion of drug deals in motels and that Shumpert was involved may have been more than enough to influence the minds of a grand jury.  

And in a very real sense, the events in Tupelo is about perceptions and the facts can be made to fit whatever scenario one is willing to believe. And in a town with a 37 percent black and 59 percent white population,  the interpretation of the Shumpert incident has usually fallen along racial lines.  
“You can’t deny the fact that Afro-American males are having lethal force used upon them.”
 A white townsperson asked:
“Well, I mean, why did he run? That’s my question.”
Both remarks are slightly off the mark. Police are authorized to use force, even lethal force, when necessary. That requires an extreme necessity. Deadly force can be applied only as a last resort when all lesser means have failed or cannot reasonably be employed.  
Attempting to flee from law enforcement is not necessarily a sign of guilt. It could very well be a sign of guilt, but there could be any number of more benign reasons why a person might flee. Panic, for example. 
Was the murder of Shumpert a case of last resort or first resort? Or was it a case in which the police was allowed to play judge and jury?  
And that's the problem in a nutshell.

Law and Order and the Guarantee of Due Process 
On one hand, we have a self-admitted domestic terrorist who has refused to cooperate with law enforcement during a routine traffic stop. He claims to be a member of an organization that US law enforcement has determined is more dangerous than ISIS.

The police officers stated that they  believed (correctly, as it turned out) sovereign citizen Webb not only to be armed but apparently also ready to use his weapon. Despite all that, the situation was ultimately resolved without any loss of life, both police and the suspect walked away unharmed.

On the other hand, we have another case in which a police officer had no reason to believe the suspect was a threat to the law enforcement or the public at large. There was no reason to pursue the suspect solely for the sake of a faulty signal. Shumpert's friend and owner of the car had remained inside the automobile.

In one case, lethal force was avoided, even when it was justified.The officer had every right to use deadly force but chose not to. 
In the other case, where deadly force was used, despite the fact that the suspect was fleeing and unarmed.

It's impossible to know for sure what actually happened or whether race played any factor in the mindset of the police. It is always dangerous to attempt to draw parallels between two incidents like these. Although there might be superficial similarities, the circumstances were different.

Yet one thing remains crystal clear. In the Shumpert incident, (and many similar cases) a citizen's constitutional right to due process was denied. 
The Fifth Amendment says to the federal government that no one shall be "deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law."

Among other rights, the Due Process Clause guarantees every citizen, without distinction, a fair trial. (Ironically, this right even protects sovereign citizens who refuse to recognize the authority of the government.)
Under Due Process, police officers not be allowed to arbitrarily decide who is and who is not guilty. They are not employed to be our public prosecutors, jury, and executioners. Keeping law and order also means respecting the constitutional rights of all citizens to due process. And that means fair treatment through the normal judicial system for everybody, regardless of race.

The fact that there is no debate on that point, rather than racial strife, should be of concern to every American citizen, both white and black.