From the falsely comforting perspective of "this is a free country, isn't it?" no Supreme Court cases are as important or have been as damaging to democratic values as OHIO v TERRY (1968) coupled with TENNESSEE v GARNER (1985). The reason these cases, and their abuses in daily application, are not immediately well known to a majority of Americans is simple - that majority is white and mainly middle-class as is the overwhelming force of police power in the United States.
In GARNER, the Supreme Court held that a police officer who felt his/her life or safety was in danger, who basically claimed a "fear for their life" in any given encounter with a "suspect" was justified in using deadly force against that "suspect." This is without regard to other options available to subdue that "suspect." Simply put, after the fact of the event, any police officer who says they were in fear for their life has been deemed to be legally allowed to kill someone even if that someone had not committed a criminal act and was unarmed. Since GARNER in 1985, every time a police officer has been called upon to defend their deadly actions they have simply claimed, under oath, that in the circumstances in question they did indeed "fear for their life." This is the normal response of every police officer as suggested and recommended by their lawyers and their union. Making this claim of "fear" either before a grand jury or in a court of law, the defense works every time - with one recent, possible and growing exception. Now that there is sometimes video of police encounters with citizens, if such a video surfaces showing, for example as happened in North Charleston, South Carolina, a police officer shooting an unarmed "suspect" in the back while that "suspect" was fleeing not attacking, the police officer may be subject to prosecution. Conviction is another question. Prior to the availability of such video evidence no such prosecution even seemed possible. GARNER allowed the police to make a claim of fear without having to prove or demonstrate that there ever was such a fear or that such a fear was reasonable.
In TERRY, the Supreme Court held that a police officer who testified in court that a person standing on a street corner "just didn't look right to me" could stop and search this person without either probable cause or a warrant. Of course the Fourth Amendment to the constitution provides for exactly that protection against police searches, but the Court ruled that this exception to the Fourth Amendment was perfectly allowable. In what have become known as TERRY stops or TERRY searches, police officers may now stop and search just about anybody they personally deem to be suspicious. The officer in TERRY, a Cleveland, Ohio policeman, actually testified when asked what made him think Mr. Terry was behaving in a suspicious manner, that "he just didn't look right to me." The Supreme Court agreed. After the Court's ruling in TERRY, all individual rights under our judicial system as well as the protections of the Fourth Amendment have become subject to the personal and individual, on-the-spot opinions and feelings of a single police officer. No other standard counts.
For the great majority of Americans - white people - these Court decisions mean little or nothing because police rarely if ever make such radical judgments when considering the behavior of white, middle-class people they may encounter on the street. But, for millions of minority Americans, black and Hispanic, their rights as guaranteed by the Fourth, Eighth, Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments have been essentially obliterated. To properly understand this a white American, particularly a middle-class white American, must think of what life would be like without protection against unconstitutional search and seizure (Fourth Amendment), without protection against cruel and unusual punishment or getting killed by the police (Eighth Amendment), without the guarantees of individual rights not otherwise enumerated in other parts of the constitution (Ninth Amendment), and without the equal protection rights afforded and guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. If you are such an American - a white, middle-class American - consider how dangerous your everyday life might be minus these assumed and otherwise acknowledged constitutional rights. You might be driving along the road or highway, or be walking on a street - even in front of your own home - and be stopped by the police and searched for no reason at all that you can determine. You might even be killed by the police - and everything that happens to you would be held allowable under the law. Yes, statistics show that police kill more white people than black people. But, of course they do since blacks account for only 13.2% of all Americans.
Despite the 13.2% population figure, the vast majority of TERRY stops and searches happen to people of color - as high as 85% of them in New York City - and since an enormous number of citizens not charged with any criminal offense and almost always unarmed, and therefore not a danger to a police officer's life or safety, who are killed by police officers later claiming to have been "in fear for their lives" are also persons of color, it will no doubt be difficult for the average white, middle-class American to comprehend the terror of living daily without their assumed and taken-for-granted constitutional rights. So often, what happens to someone else hardly matters to those who never find themselves in such a predicament.
This is why the problems resulting from GARNER and TERRY remain unknown to most Americans and are not to any degree at all a public issue. These abuses do not matter to most of us, and for those who have no choice and must live with these often life- threatening problems every minute of their lives, sadly the message from the majority of Americans is - you "don't look right" to us, and we just don't care about you.
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