Steps Towards Reasonableness

Over the past 8 years, the Federal Court System has been plagued by a series of decisions handed down by liberal judges who used their position to legislate from the bench.  Finally, the tide seems to be turning. Two recent decisions by separate Federal Courts appear to show a shift towards reasonableness rather than the extreme.

Liberal judges have made it harder and harder for police to question suspects, search for evidence or even protect themselves from harm by repeatedly applying unreasonable, and previously unheard of, standards to each situation that they are called to review. The media and left wing fanatics, those who have never faced split second decisions often under the worst of circumstances, applauded these decisions as the first steps in criminal justice reform. Law enforcement experts feared they would only result in further unnecessary hurdles in bringing criminals to justice. Criminals saw each and every one of them as another chance to get away with the unthinkable.

Two federal courts, the First Circuit and the Sixth Circuit, have recently handed down unexpected decisions which may be the beginning of the change. I say these decisions were unexpected not because they defy legal standards, quite the opposite actually, but because they defy the popular narrative – the one which makes every criminal a victim.

In the first case, United States v. Bey, the First Circuit reviewed the defendant’s claim that charges against him were the result of an illegal warrantless search. The basic facts of the case are that police, in an attempt to arrest Bey for an outstanding arrest warrant, tracked his whereabouts to the residence of a former girlfriend. This girlfriend was also the victim of a previous domestic violence assault and had a valid protection from abuse order against Bey. Upon arriving at the residence, officers located Bey and arrested him. During that arrest, they observed a black backpack in his possession but which Bey claimed belonged to the ex-girlfriend, who confirmed the bag was hers but had been borrowed by the defendant. Eventually officers obtained consent to search the bag from the ex-girlfriend and located various drugs and firearms, for which Bey was charged and eventually entered a guilty plea but then appealed to the First Circuit.

Although the facts of the case appear to be clearly in favor of the officers – Bey had no legal right to even be in the residence and thus could not expect any privacy from the officer’s search, Bey denied ownership of the bag and the true owner provided consent – stranger things have happened in the courts of late. Surprisingly, the First Circuit did not stray from the law and legislate or conduct social reform from the bench. Instead, the First Circuit did what they are expected to do and decided the case on nothing more than its legal merits and for each of the reasons listed above upheld Bey’s conviction. More importantly, the Court refused to grant any credit to the defense’s argument that armed officers showing up at someone’s door, someone they would expect to be relieved to see if not a suspect, does not rise to the level of inherently coercive tactics. Instead, this was seen as good police work.

CourtroomThe second case, Rucinski v County of Oakland et al., dealt with an even hotter topic than warrantless searches and one which has been in the forefront of the current anti-police sentiment – the use of deadly force. While many recent police shootings have resulted in community upheaval, this case involved a new wrinkle, one sure to inflame public passion – the deceased was mentally ill. According to the facts of the case, police were sent to a residence shared by Rucinski and his girlfriend for a “welfare check,” something commonly involving police being requested to verify the status of an ill family member. Upon arrival, officers were met by Rucinski’s girlfriend who stated he was “off his meds” and “usually carried a switchblade knife.” The welfare check had turned to a domestic violence situation and potential standoff with a violent, armed offender. Officers changed tactics and gained access to the attached garage via two different entrances, where they found Rucinski armed with his knife. The suspect began advancing on one group of officers, making statements indicative of a desire to fight.  As Rucinski continued to advance and ignore officers’ commands, one officer deployed a Taser and a second officer shot him once in the chest – a wound which proved fatal.

Rucinski’s mother filed suit against the officer, their supervisor, the police department and the county for excessive force and failure to properly train the officers in the proper use of force. At the center of the argument was the belief that officers should have received additional training in recognizing and dealing with the mentally ill and, if they had received this training, the use of deadly force would not have been necessary. Because the lower court ruled in favor of the officers, an appeal brought the matter in front of the Sixth Circuit.

Many citizens, including judges, believe that modern police officers should possess the skills of social workers, mental health professionals, mediators and experts in hand to hand combat – skills necessary to recognize, diagnose and treat mental illness in the field or successfully negotiate with or defend themselves against violent offenders without using their firearms. Although these situations may be a repeated, almost commonplace, aspect of modern police work, it is unreasonable to expect police officers to be experts in mental illness. But that is what many have expected and law enforcement experts expected no less from the Sixth circuit. That was not to be.

Like the First Circuit, the Sixth Circuit broke from the norm and did not decide the case based on the anti-police trend nor did it allow itself to be plied by the sad story of a mentally ill offender who died needlessly. Instead, they reviewed the case from the viewpoint required by law; that of the officers forced to face a violent mentally ill offender armed with a knife and proclaiming his desire to do harm to those officers. In doing so, the court found that, while it was unfortunate that Rucinski had not received the treatment he needed and even more unfortunate that his life had been taken by a police officer’s bullet, his death was nonetheless necessary to protect the officers present and conformed with the reasonable use of force. Specifically, the court held that the fact that Rucinski was mentally ill did not prevent the officers from being able to protect themselves.

Two cases, two decisions based on a reasonable interpretation of the facts and the law rather than social pressure or political correctness. Two cases may not seem like a wave of change, but every wave begins with tiny ripples.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical

Tom Burrell

Tom enlisted in the US Marine Corps Reserves in 1987. Following service in Desert Storm, he transitioned to active duty with the US Coast Guard. In 1997 he left the USCG to pursue a position in conservation & maritime law enforcement. Tom is currently a Captain and he oversees several programs, including his agency investigation unit. He is also a training instructor in several areas including firearms, defensive tactics and first aid/CPR. In 2006 Tom received his Associate’s Degree in Criminal Justice from Harrisburg Area Community College and in 2010 a Bachelor’s Degree from Penn State University.
Tom Burrell

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