THE PERILS OF A TRAFFIC STOP
The Stanford Open Policing Project (SOPR) reports that police conduct 50,000 traffic stops daily. These traffic stops result in more than 20 million American motorists interacting with the police each year.
At best, traffic stops are tense situations—both for the motorist and the cop—that can quickly become confrontational (and even spiral out of control into violence) because of the systemic racism associated with police practices and the resulting lack of respect for the badge.
SOPR data beginning in 2015 shows that the police stop Black Americans at a significantly higher rate than they do White and Hispanic Americans.
This practice has become known as “racial profiling.” Because of its prevalence, it is often referred to as “Driving While Black.” The fact that most Black Americans feel their race subjects them to greater police scrutiny, and increases their risk of a fatal encounter with the police, speaks volumes about the systemic racism indisputably woven into the very fabric of American policing.
Racial Profiling Based on Faulty Premise
The ACLU offers these reasons for “racial profiling”:
“Racial profiling is based on the premise that most drug offenses are committed by minorities. The premise is factually untrue, but it has nonetheless become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because police look for drugs primarily among African Americans and Latinos, they find a disproportionate number of them with contraband. Therefore, more minorities are arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and jailed, thus reinforcing the perception that drug trafficking is primarily a minority activity. This perception creates the profile that results in more stops of minority drivers. At the same time, white drivers receive far less police attention, many of the drug dealers and possessors among them go unapprehended, and the perception that whites commit fewer drug offenses than minorities is perpetuated. And so the cycle continues.
“This vicious cycle carries with it profound personal and societal costs. It is both symptomatic and symbolic of larger problems at the intersection of race and the criminal justice system. It results in the persecution of innocent people based on their skin color. It has a corrosive effect on the legitimacy of the entire justice system. It deters people of color from cooperating with the police in criminal investigations. And in the courtroom, it causes jurors of all races and ethnicities to doubt the testimony of police officers when they serve as witnesses, making criminal cases more difficult to win.”
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has consistently given police officers who engage in racial profiling a constitutional “free pass” through the insidiously flawed court-created doctrine of qualified immunity.
This Fifth Circuit practice was at it again in the Court’s April 21, 2022, three Republican judge panel decision in Solis v. Serrett.
Police Get Another Free Pass
On May 27, 2019, a Baytown, Texas police officer named Samuel Serrett stopped a vehicle driven by Timothy Robinson, a Black man, with his White girlfriend Jessica Solis near a self-storage facility.
The officer initiated the stop because Robinson allegedly did not give a proper turn signal and drove outside his lane.
Serrett’s interaction with the interracial couple immediately became confrontational after the officer indicated he believed the couple was intoxicated. He became agitated when Solis responded to several questions the officer directed at Robinson.
Before Serrett ordered Robinson to get out of the vehicle, he called for backup. The exchange between the officer and Robinson became increasingly tense when Robinson failed to cooperate with a field sobriety test. The officer arrested Robinson and placed him in his police vehicle.
Officer Teddy Sims arrived at the scene just after Serrett had placed Robinson in the police vehicle. Sims immediately suggested that Solis was intoxicated. Solis recorded the exchange between Serrett and Robinson, narrating the events on her cell phone.
Sims then joined Serrett in the confrontation with Solis, after which she asked Serrett for his badge number. The officer responded by requesting to see her cell phone. She refused.
Within seconds Sims came up behind Solis and forced her arm behind her back while Serrett tried to grab her cell phone.
The two officers then took Solis to the ground, with Sims putting his knee on her back while Serrett handcuffed her. The officers took the couple to jail and booked them on intoxication-related charges.
Solis filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in December 2019 against the two officers, charging they arrested her in retaliation for her filming the arrest of Robinson and that they employed excessive force during the arrest.
U.S. District Court Judge Andrew S. Hanen dismissed all Solis’ claims except the excessive force claim. Judge Hanen ruled there was sufficient evidence warranting a trial on the merits of whether the officers had violated Solis’s “clearly established right” not to be subjected to law enforcement excessive force.
Qualified Immunity Blocks Due Process, Fair Trial, Again
The Fifth Circuit reversed Judge Hanen’s ruling, finding the two officers enjoyed qualified immunity:
“Foundational to our qualified immunity doctrine is the concept that we must view an officer’s actions from that officer’s point of view without the benefit of hindsight. From the comfort of a courtroom or chambers, it is often possible for judges to muse on how an officer could have handled a situation better. But that does not mean the officer is not entitled to qualified immunity. In this case, we cannot say that the officers violated clearly established law when we view the events from the officers’ point of view at the very moment they acted. “
Qualified Immunity Leads to Another Injustice
In other words, the police have the right to arrest and apply whatever excessive force they deem necessary, regardless of whether the force is needed.
In the Solis case, two armed officers grabbed a woman and took her roughly to the ground, as one officer handcuffed her while the other restrained her with his full-weighted knee to her back.
Was that excessive?
The legal definition of excessive force is “force in excess of what a police officer reasonably believes is necessary.”
Neither Serrett nor Sims told Solis she was under arrest. They wanted her cell phone without any reasonable suspicion that it had been used in criminal activity. When she refused to give it to them, both officers physically and forcefully took her to the ground and held her face down with a knee to her back before handcuffing her. She posed no physical threat to either officer.
Except for three politically conservative Republican judges on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, that is excessive force. This case should have been allowed to go to trial. The injustice is now just another fatality of the unjust doctrine of qualified immunity and another reason why communities of color have no trust in the judicial system.