Sandra Bland's video of the dubious arrest that led to her death in a Texas jail has shined new light on the tendency of crooked and abusive law-enforcement officers (LEOs) to reflexively lie when faced with their own wrongdoing. The Schnauzer family has firsthand experience with that from our unlawful eviction in Springfield, MO (Greene County) that ended with deputies slamming my wife, Carol, to the ground and yanking on her limbs so violently that they left her with a comminuted fracture of her left arm that required eight hours of trauma surgery for repair.
But our interactions with thuggish, dishonest cops does not end with Carol -- or Missouri. I've had my own such experience with LEO's in Alabama -- and it caused me to become the only U.S. journalist to be incarcerated since 2006 and apparently the only one in U.S. history to be imprisoned because of a temporary restraining order/preliminary injunction in a wholly civil case, the kind of "prior restraints" that have been prohibited under First Amendment law for more than 200 years.
Lying Missouri cops, it turns out, don't have anything on their brethren in Alabama. Chris Blevins -- the Shelby County deputy, who entered our home without showing a warrant, stating he had a warrant, or even stating his reasons for being on our property -- serves as Exhibit A of corruption among Alabama LEOs. Blevins' actions raise several legal issues that merit examination:
(A) The arrest itself was unlawful, as we explained in this post:
How bad can some rogue officers be in the South, especially in the state I know best--Alabama? How deep is their disregard for the law? To help answer those questions, we can turn to my own arrest on October 23, 2013, which led to five months in jail. What was my crime? As with the Walter Scott case, there weren't even allegations of a crime; I was arrested for blogging--and I'm not making that up.
How absurd did it get? Courtroom evidence suggests that Alabama deputies arrested me without a warrant, making the arrest "unauthorized and illegal" under the law. If that was the case, the deputies likely ran afoul of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that generally prohibits warrantless entry into a private home to make an arrest.
Payton v. New York, 455 U.S 573 (1980) specifically forbids such entry in most cases involving felony arrest. My arrest was for civil contempt in a defamation lawsuit and did not involve a crime at all.
What about details of what happened that night in our garage? We don't have to guess about it because the events were caught on dash-cam tape -- much of the video and all of the audio:
Shelby County deputy Chris Blevins entered my home on October 23, 2013, walking into our basement garage to knock me down three times and Mace me before telling me that I was under arrest. It's all caught on a videotape that later was played in open court.
At no point, in a video taken from his police cruiser, does Blevins show an arrest warrant. When the prosecution was told to turn over copies of any warrants at my resisting-arrest trial in January, prosecutor Tonya Willingham replied that she did not have any warrants.
All of that suggests there was no warrant for my arrest, and that raises the issue of Payton v. New York. Here is the key finding in that case:
"The Fourth Amendment, made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment, prohibits the police from making a warrantless and nonconsensual entry into a suspect's home in order to make a routine felony arrest." I can be heard on the video telling Blevins to get out of my house, so his entry was nonconsensual.
As for the nature of the arrest, I had not even been charged with a crime, much less a felony. Entry into a home can't get much more illegal than that.
(B) As we explained in this post, you can't resist an arrest that was unlawful in the first place:
Evidence strongly suggests that my October 2013 arrest, by an Alabama deputy who neither showed a warrant nor said he had one, was unlawful. So how on earth was I charged with "resisting arrest," and convicted, resulting in a fine of $845? For that matter, how did I wind up incarcerated for five months on an arrest that was conducted outside the law?
None of that can happen in a place where the actual law means anything. But we are talking about Shelby County, Alabama, and District Judge Ron Jackson--who I knew from previous experience has a tendency to pull "law" from some dark place underneath his robe. We also are talking about powerful conservative legal/political figures, led by Rob Riley and lobbyist Liberty Duke (and God knows who else behind the curtains) who wanted me in jail to stop my reporting on this blog.
Here is the fundamental question we asked in a recent post: Can you be charged with resisting an unlawful arrest? The answer is no, and here is why:
Code of Alabama 13A-10-41 (Resisting Arrest) states:
"A person commits the crime of resisting arrest if he intentionally prevents or attempts to prevent a peace officer from affecting a lawful arrest of himself or of another person."
That raises this obvious question: Was my arrest lawful? And the answer is no, on at least three grounds:
(1) Officer Chris Blevins entered our home without showing a warrant or saying he had one. At my resisting-arrest trial, prosecutor Tonya Willingham was instructed to turn over any warrants as evidence, and she said, "Your Honor, we don't have any." At this point, it's a matter of public record that there was no warrant for my arrest. Either that, or Ms. Willingham withheld evidence, which could cost her law license. Entering a dwelling without a valid warrant violates a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case styled Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573 (1979).
|Shelby County (AL) Jail|
(3) My arrest was based on alleged violation of a temporary restraining order (TRO) and preliminary injunction in the Riley/Duke defamation case. But more than 200 years of First Amendment law prohibits such actions as "prior restraints" on free speech. In other words, they prohibit speech before it has been found unlawful at trial--and there was no trial in the Riley/Duke case, meaning my reporting still has never been found false or defamatory in any legitimate proceeding. All of this is governed by a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case styled Near v. Minnesota, 283 U.S. 697 (1931). My arrest might represent the most flagrant violation of Near in American history.
What about Alabama case law on the subject of resisting an unlawful arrest? It could not be more clear, spelled out in a 2013 federal-court case styled Rigas v. Rogersville (some citations omitted):
Under Alabama law, a person commits the crime of resisting a lawful arrest by preventing or “attempting to prevent a peace officer from affecting [sic] a lawful arrest of himself or of another person.” Ala. Code § 13A-10-41. An arrest without a warrant, as here, may be effected “if a public offense has been committed or a breach of the peace threatened in the presence of the officer.” Ala. Code § 15-10- 46 3(1). There is no Alabama law or practice criminalizing resistance of an unlawful arrest, however. See Shinault v. City of Huntsville, 579 So. 2d 696, 698 (Ala. Crim. App. 1991) . . . Indeed, Alabama law has historically permitted use of reasonable force to resist an unlawful arrest. Ala. Code § 13A-3-28 Commentary (1975) . . .
(C) Even though I had a right to reasonably resist an unlawful arrest, Blevins' own words and actions show that I did not -- as we pointed out in this post:
Let's consider a few elements from my encounter with Shelby County officer Chris Blevins:
(1) In his incident report, Blevins states that he has two warrants for contempt of court in his vehicle. But the video shows that they stayed in his vehicle, and he never showed them to me or mentioned that he had them. . . . He reports walking inside our garage to tap on the trunk of our car--all without showing he had any legal authority to be there or verbally stating why he was there. Despite that, Blevins apparently was surprised when I got out of my vehicle and, in his words, "began yelling for me to get out of his house." Gee, can't imagine why I would do that. An armed stranger, who has shown he has no legal grounds to be there, is walking right into my house--even after being told to get out. Why would that concern me?
(2) Blevins admits he made the initial physical contact after I put my right hand in my right front pocket. Apparently, he thought I was reaching for an assault weapon. (News flash: I was putting my car keys in my pocket, where they always go when I get home.) Blevins also noted that I pushed a button to close the garage door behind us. I don't remember doing that, but I do remember thinking, "Don't close the door because you want this guy out of here." It's possible I reflexively pushed the button because I've been doing it that way when I've come home for 25 years.
(3) Blevins then writes, "I told Mr. Shuler that I had a warrant for his arrest," but this is a lie--and the video proves it. He never mentions an arrest, his apparent purpose for being there, until after I've been knocked to a concrete floor three times and maced in the face.
(4) On the video, Blevins can be heard repeatedly saying, "Don't fight me, don't fight me" as he is shoving me around. But according to Blevins' own words, I wasn't fighting him--it was the other way around. The only physical act that Blevins describes of me is putting my arms in front of me--an effort to try to protect my face and glasses from his flailing arms.
(5) Blevins admits throwing me through boxes, to the floor, three times. Never does he say I took any offensive action against him, other than raising my arms in front of my face. . . .
My entire arrest was captured on video, although it has some flaws. Blevins' vehicle was parked at about a 45-degree angle to our garage, so when we go inside the garage and the door closes, the dash cam loses sight of us and mostly shows our backyard. Audio, however picks up the whole thing--and that shows that Blevins entered our home without showing, or saying he had, a warrant. Blevins' own words, show that he initiated physical contact, and I never lashed out at him; I never cursed or threatened him, and I never tried to run away. Also, after Blevins and I exit the garage, Officer Jason Valenti can be heard threatening to break my arms.
Here are a few facts that surfaced at my resisting-arrest trial:
"In the audio, you can hear Deputy Blevins assaulting me three times and spraying me with mace before he ever said that he was on the premises to conduct an arrest," Shuler said. "The evidence showed that I was defending myself with the only physical act that I did according to Blevins' own words was raising my arms in a defensive posture, and I was defending myself against a grotesque example of police brutality and excessive force. Evidence showed that Blevins likely had no warrant given that the prosecution could produce no warrant at the trial. The notion that a journalist or any other citizen could be arrested and beaten up in their own home without a warrant should be a cause of great concern for all citizens."
Assistant District Attorney Tonya Willingham prosecuted the case and when forced to turn over copies of any warrants she said she did not have one. How can a resisting arrest case be prosecuted when there are no warrants in evidence? That's one of many disturbing questions raised by Tuesday's trial.
Following are some other revelations from the case:
* Blevins admitted that this was a traffic stop and that Shuler had committed no traffic violations that warranted him being stopped;
* Blevins admitted that he made physical contact with Shuler before ever stating that he was on the premises to make an arrest;
* Blevins never instructed Shuler to get in any sort of arrest position and never told Shuler to put his hands behind his back until after the three assaults and macing;
Blevins admitted that he has had citizen complaints about use of excessive force and police brutality; Deputy Jason Valenti, who assisted in the arrest, can be heard on the video threatening to break Shuler's arms;
* The incident in the report has a box that says "Warrant Signed?" and Blevins has inserted the word "No" as an answer.
We are left with this question: Should a citizen ever believe anything a cop says? Based on experience, I would advise against it.