What is case law? The shootings of Sterling, Castile, and many others

By Matt Johnson

Social media is ablaze this morning. With the police shootings of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Minnesota, both of whom were black, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites are exploding with anger, frustration, confusion, and strong opinion. And understandably so. However, America has been down this road before.

The media and people in general ask plenty of questions. But the questions most people, in media or in general, do not ask themselves during an event like this is, what is case law? And why is case law important? To be fair, many Americans aren’t familiar with the term case law. But this is a part of the challenge to effect change when events like this happen.

If a group of people expect to change the way police interact with citizenry, or want to reduce the disproportionate number of black men shot and killed by law enforcement, then that group must address case law. Why? This is how police officers make their decisions while interacting with citizens. But what is case law and what does it have to do with Philando Castile or Alton Sterling?

As David Goguen, J.D., of the University of San Francisco School of Law, explains, it is the sum of

…decisions handed down by courts over the years, with those rulings serving as ‘precedent’ for other courts in the same jurisdiction to follow.

But this “precedent” from previous cases doesn’t just derive from any court. These decisions derive from appellate courts. The appellate courts are the appeals courts. Appeals courts are where decisions of events like Tennessee v. Garner are decided, for example. In other words, the appeals courts will take decisions from lower courts, otherwise known as the district courts, and review them for accuracy.

This serves two purposes. First, it reduces the case load by state or federal supreme courts. And second, the appellate court, in the case of Minnesota for example,

…provides the citizens of Minnesota with a prompt and deliberate review of all final decisions of the trial courts, state agencies, and local governments.

In the case of Philando Castile in Minnesota, the Minnesota Court of Appeals is where decisions from lower courts are challenged and reviewed. For example, if the shooting of Mr. Castile was found to be justified by the investigative branch of the police department of the police officer who shot and killed him, then it is the right of the family, or representatives, to challenge the decision in the trial courts, i.e., the district courts.

The trial courts are where the facts of the incident are presented and decided upon. This is a step in the process that can lead up to the appellate courts. If the family, or representatives are unhappy with the findings of the trial courts, then they can challenge those findings in the appellate courts, if they choose to take it that far. However, if they do indeed choose to challenge the findings, then they’ll be able to do it at the state or federal level.

There is also a similar process that would take place with Alton Sterling and the Louisiana Circuit Court of Appeals. However, it should be noted that there is a procedure to appeal a prior judgement (See the Minnesota Court of Appeals procedure in Title II, Rule 103).

But this appeals process can be a double-edged sword; that is, it could support the actions of the officer or it could provide standing to secure the lives of future citizenry. A couple possible questions that the appeals court will be challenged with are, were Castile’s, or Sterling’s constitutional rights, for example fourth amendment rights, violated? And was the officer justified in his actions? This is what happened in Tennessee v. Garner in 1985 when Edward Garner’s father challenged the findings of the district courts.

The challenge by Garner’s father paid off. It was found by the majority opinion of the United States Supreme Court that the officer did not have the legal standing to effect deadly force on an unarmed, fleeing suspect, who consequently was a 15-year-old boy.

Expanding this notion onto the current events of Castile, or Sterling, was the officer in either case reasonable and justified in their actions? Did the officer have legal standing to open fire on Castile, or Sterling, thus taking his life? Did the officer believe his life or the lives of those around them, including the child in the backseat of Castile’s vehicle, were in danger? And did this legal standing already exist in the form of case law?

Have these questions already been decided in previous case law or have they yet to be established case law? But this is the point. As emotional and painful and politically contentious as these events may be, there is a legal process to address such circumstances and outcomes; and that legal process is by way of the appellate courts if the findings of local and state law enforcement agencies are found to be unsatisfactory.

It is true that the legal process in this country has not always been fair or adequate for historically disenfranchised groups. This is well documented. But exhausting such legal processes as case law is paramount for civil rights and the safety of all citizens. It’s also important for the psychological welfare and well-being of a citizenry. A citizenry must know they have these rights and be aware of such jurisprudence of case law before they know they can begin to address and change laws, and effect how police officers are trained and how police officers interact with the citizenry in all parts of American society.

Note: This article has been edited for legal consistency at 10:15 am CDT  . 

Copyright ©2016 – The Systems Scientist





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