There is a humorous adage to the effect that prosecutors will even prosecute ham sandwiches. But according to this Daily Beast article, one county attorney has announced that his office will no longer prosecute felony cases resulting from minor traffic stops for violations like an expired registration, overly tinted windows, or broken lights. That county attorney is John Choi, who unsuccessfully brought charges against Officer Jeronimo Yanez for the shooting death of black motorist Philando Castile; it was in Castile’s honor that Choi made the announcement. Although Castile was pulled over for having a broken tail light, he had initially attracted the attention of the police because he looked like an armed robbery suspect.
It would appear, though, that this policy would have serious consequences, or have I missed something? Let’s say an officer takes a report on a firearm stolen during a burglary, the theft recorded on high-resolution color video from multiple security cameras. The suspect has distinct features and is colorfully dressed. The stolen weapon is an “AR pistol” with a custom Cerakote finish featuring a repeating pattern of the owner’s monogram. The next day, the same officer stops a vehicle for expired registration, and he recognizes the driver as being the same person he saw in the security video, clothes and all. Moreover, peeking out at the officer from under a towel spread on the front passenger seat is the gun owner’s monogram Cerakoted onto a small patch of exposed surface of whatever is concealed under the towel. The officer calls for backup, arrests the driver, and seizes the stolen gun. So is Choi not going to prosecute this felony stolen firearm case? What if the owner of the stolen firearm wants to press charges against the suspect?
According to the article, Choi is deliberately attempting to cut down on unnecessary stops by police of people of color that disproportionately impact the people in his community. Well, that could be effected by simply proscribing “bias-based policing” in which police have no probable cause to pull someone over but do so anyway because they’re engaging in racial profiling. (Castille wasn’t pulled over simply because he was black; he was pulled over because he looked like a specific person who had committed an armed robbery.) Furthermore, pulling people over for things like expired registrations, overly tinted windows, or broken lights isn’t “unnecessary”; if those things are against the law, it’s the officer’s job to pull violators over and issue a citation or at least give them a warning. And if an officer makes one of these legitimate stops, and the driver matches the description of a suspect involved in a felony, why shouldn’t charges be brought, especially if the arrested driver is subsequently identified in a lineup by the victim of whatever felony was committed? Many criminals have been brought to justice after having been pulled over for a routine traffic stop; it is almost as if Choi is aiding and abetting wrongdoers in avoiding prosecution.
I have reason to believe that critical race theory (CRT) is at the root of Choi’s announcement. According to CRT, inequities between black Americans and white Americans are due to systemic racism. So if black Americans commit a disproportionately higher percentage of crimes than do white Americans and are therefore going to be disproportionately found out to have committed those crimes when pulled over for legitimate traffic stops, this inequity is prima facie evidence that they are indeed the victims of systemic racism. If they are simply allowed to get away with the crimes without being prosecuted, however, the degree of black/white inequity is lessened, and this is a desirable outcome in the minds of social justice warriors who push CRT. It is also very possible that Choi harbors feelings of self-imputed guilt for his failure to successfully prosecute Officer Yanez; by refusing to prosecute felonies discovered during traffic stops—a disproportionate number of which involve black drivers—he is atoning for that failure. He is also probably visiting his wrath at the jury who failed to convict Officer Yanez upon the general public from which the jury pool was drawn, a public which will now have to deal with people who got away with felony crimes wandering unindicted with impunity among them.
The article also quoted Castile’s mother, who stated her son “ended up being murdered over a broken tail light.” With accusations of murder in the air so long after the fact, a review of the sad and disturbing incident would be in order. It has already been noted that Castile matched the description of an armed robbery suspect. When Castile rolled his window down during the traffic stop, Officer Yanez caught a strong whiff of marijuana; bear in mind that police officers have been shot and killed by people who didn’t want to catch a charge for possession of marijuana. According to the postmortem toxicology report, Castile had THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, in his system; I will make a case that this severely impaired his judgment. Marijuana use also violated the terms of his license to carry permit. Although the article states that Castile advised Yanez that he had a licensed gun, this is simply not true; Castile said that he had a firearm on him, no mention of a license whatsoever. So a police officer pulls a driver over who looks like an armed robbery suspect, and the driver is armed and has been smoking marijuana; any police officer in this situation would have a little alarm bell going off in his head.
The transcript of the recorded audio of the traffic stop provides a chronological list of the events as they unfold. Right after Yanez asks for license and insurance, Castile advises that he has a firearm on him, and Yanez tells him not to reach for it. Yanez then tells Castile not to pull it out, and Castile and his girlfriend in the passenger seat state that he’s not pulling it out. (Bear in mind that if a police officer advises someone not to reach for a firearm and then subsequently tells him not to pull it out, it’s because the officer believes the person is pulling the firearm out, and the best course of action for that person would be to stop whatever he’s doing, show his hands, and ask the officer how he would like to proceed. Also, a bad guy actually pulling out a firearm would naturally deny that he was doing so as would any accomplice.) Yanez again tells Castille not to pull it out, after which Yanez opens fire. Even after Castile is shot, Yanez yet again has to order him not to pull it out. My educated guess at what is going on is that Castile’s drivers license was in a wallet on his person in very close proximity to the gun, Castile’s fumbling to get the wallet out perhaps partially exposing the gun or causing the outline of the gun to show through the fabric of his clothing.
But the transcript omits a crucial element fleetingly visible in the video; you may want to click on the gear-shaped icon and adjust the playback speed to 0.25 so you don’t miss it. It occurs between 21:05:58 and 21:06:00 of the dashcam time stamp, immediately before Castile is shot. Yanez inserts his left arm all the way into the vehicle through the open window, presumably in an attempt to dislodge Castile’s right arm from whatever it was doing. Castile is apparently so messed up that even with a police officer’s arm right under his nose, it doesn’t occur to him that maybe he should stop doing whatever he’s doing. Even after he’s shot, he doggedly persists in doing whatever he’s doing, causing Yanez to have to scream at him one final time not to pull it out. This is what can happen when someone chooses to operate a motor vehicle and carry a firearm while significantly impaired.