Sunday, September 4, 2011

Cases like this really do happen

In case you weren't clear, it is in fact not a crime to walk in Kansas City, Kansas while black. But it took years to reach that conclusion. And 4 judges ruled otherwise before the Kansas Supreme Court finally said so. The case is State v. Johnson.

It all started when members of an FBI Task Force on violent crimes went to look for Shane Thompson. None of the task force members knew the suspect, but they had a description of a short man (5'2") with short hair and facial hair. They went to his mother's house, hoping to find him. But no luck. So there the Task Force was, all dressed up and no one to cuff. They hate it when that happens.

But, then, like manna from heaven, there they were! Two black men! In a predominately black neighborhood. With short hair and facial hair. Five blocks away from the suspect's house. And each was at only 7 or so inches taller than the guy they were looking for! One of them must be their guy! Because what are the odds of black guys who weren't the least bit connected with their guy just walking down the street 5 blocks away? (Umm, pretty good, actually...) So the Task Force circled its multiple cars around the pair and exited their cars. Lights flashing, guns drawn. These two were seized and most definitely not free to leave. In that moment, those two were probably just hoping they weren't going to get shot.

Of course neither of these guys, 5'9 and 5'11, were the guy. But since this is a criminal case, you know our unlucky defendant, Mr. Johnson, must have done something. Poor guy had some pot and coke on him. Drugs police only found because of this blatantly illegal, racist stop. But the District Attorney's office didn't have a problem with the stop because they filed the charges and defended against the motion to suppress. And the District Court judge didn't have a problem with the stop because he denied the motion to suppress and sentenced the unlucky defendant. And the Court of Appeals, remarkably, did not have a problem with the stop because they affirmed the District Court's ruling. One might forgive Mr. Johnson if he was starting to suspect that the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures doesn't apply to black men in Kansas City, Kansas.

But then the Kansas Supreme Court stepped in. They didn't have to, but they granted Mr. Johnson's petition for review. And finally, FINALLY, we found some judges willing to say they had a problem with this stop. They said what all the rest of us understand, that looking for a 5'2" black man does not entitle you to seize the first black men you see. In a delightful twist, the Task Force members tried to justify their stop because the  information they had about the man's height may not be reliable. So it was reliable enough to justify stopping someone, but not reliable enough to restrict the police to seizing only men who fit the description. (The Kansas Supreme Court seems to have been the only lawyers, other than the defense attorneys, who noted this logical flaw in the task force's justification of reasonable suspicion.)

There are so many things about this case that are appalling. The brazenness of the Task Force's actions. They just flat stopped the first black guys they saw, with very little pretense at justifying their actions. Then there's the DA who didn't see the police report and immediately think, "I can't prosecute a case built entirely on such  a blatantly unconstitutional seizure!" Or the District Court Judge who didn't laugh the state out of court, granting a motion to suppress before the defense attorney could open his mouth. Or the Court of Appeals who affirmed this travesty.

Obviously, I'm pleased that the Supreme Court did overturn this case, rule the suppression motion should have been granted, and reversed Mr. Johnson's convictions. He already had to serve most of his sentence, of course, but I guess better late than never. But would it have killed the Court to have expressed a little outrage? Because this case is pretty outrageous. And 2 courts had no problem with it. Happily, for Mr. Johnson and, one hopes, other nondescript black black men in Kansas City, Kansas (and Wichita and Topeka) the 3rd Court was the charm.

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