Last Month Utah paid a lawyer and his client $40,000. The lawyer represented Jared Massey, a 20-something-year-old Vernal resident. Massey's cause of action was that a state trooper named Jon Gardner had used excessive force and thereby violated his civil rights by shocking him twice with a TASER during a Sept. 14 traffic stop.
Before we go any further, there are three things that you need to know: One, Trooper Gardner was cleared of any wrongdoing by his agency and the county where the incident occurred. Two, the majority of the incident was captured by a dashboard camera and circulated on YouTube. And finally, the state was probably smart to settle unless it could find a truly "reasonable" jury to decide the case.
I've watched the video three times. Here's essentially what happened. Trooper Gardner pulled Massey for speeding. He walks up to Massey's SUV and says, "How are you doing? You were going kind of fast. Need your license and registration." This is one of the few times that the two men clearly understand each other and each other's intentions during the 10 minutes captured by the dashboard camera. Another moment of clear communication comes when Massey—who stupidly wants to argue his guilt or innocence with the trooper on the side of the road—refuses to sign and accept the citation.
The trooper then orders Massey out of the vehicle. Massey is clearly not aware at this point that he is under arrest. He keeps arguing his case as Trooper Gardner orders him to "turn around and put your hands behind your back." Gardner pulls his TASER and continues to order Massey to turn around and put his hands behind his back. Massey is too clueless to realize that he is about to get zapped, so he turns his back on Gardner and starts to amble back to his vehicle. So, zap.
How you view this footage is clearly determined by your experience with traffic stops. If you are a cop or someone who has seen a lot of dashboard videos in which officers get killed, you can understand why Trooper Gardner decided to TASER motorist Massey as he moved toward his car. But to the public, this looks like a case of an officer of the law TASERing a guy just because he was arguing with him.
Don't believe me, take a quick scan of the following quotes from the comments that were submitted by readers of the Salt Lake Tribune at the bottom of the story announcing Massey's $40K award:
First, from the "all cops suck" crowd.
Officers are itching to shock people every chance they get.
Hopefully the state takes the full $40,000 out of that overzealous trooper's pocket…The trooper should get fired plus pay the $40,000.
Now, from the "support your local LEO" contingent.
Finally, there are those who realize that there are a lot of gray areas in any contact between the police and the public and that police officers get killed in those gray areas.
The officer was within his rights…The kid was walking back to his car. Cops get shot in situations like this.
It's easy to sit back and pass judgment one way or the other based on the video, but the fact remains that officers are being killed at an alarming rate in roadside situations…
These last two statements are the words of the "reasonable man" that the Supreme Court has established as the standard for use of force by American police officers. They realize that it's a lot easier to Monday morning quarterback your actions than it is to do your job.
One of your missions as American law enforcement officers in the 21st century is to communicate clearly with the public, not just your orders during a traffic stop, but the dangers of your job. If you do so, you will cultivate more "reasonable men" to judge your actions in a court of law. And perhaps then state governments will have enough courage to contest lawsuits like the one that just enriched a Utah motorist and his lawyer.