Mimesis Law
24 March 2017

Standing With Officer James Sanders

December 9, 2016 (Fault Lines) – When a car full of teens blew past Officer James Sanders with the Social Circle, GA police department, and one stuck his head out the window and yelled “fuck the police!,” Sanders was not amused.

He was, in fact, so unamused that he made a pretextual traffic stop and, after the teens pulled over next to a gas station, ordered them out of the car and gave the kid who yelled at him a ten-minute tongue lashing. Video of the November 23 encounter has since been released to the public, and to watch it is by turns amusing and cringeworthy. It seems to go on forever: at one point, the kid’s friends actually leave without him, abandoning him to the tender mercies of Sanders and his partner. (As if to underscore the pretextual nature of the stop, no ticket or anything was written for the driver.)

When Sanders was done, he told the kid to “get out of here,” went back to his patrol car with his partner and drove off. Full stop. No harm done, unless you count acute second-hand embarrassment for everyone involved (and anyone watching the video.)

End of story? Not quite. Because on December 6, Social Circle’s police chief, Tyrone Oliver, told Fox 5 Atlanta he was letting Sanders go for his behavior during and after the stop. Along with claiming Sanders’ conduct was unworthy of an SCPD cop (he invoked the “we hold officers to a higher standard” trope, which isn’t always a useful model of police/community relations), he said Sanders gave a statement about the incident that didn’t match body and dash cam recordings.

Maybe most tellingly, Oliver said officers on his force have to be tougher than this, capable of enduring mean words without suffering an emotional breakdown:

“We have to have tough skin and let things roll of our back,” Oliver said.

So what’s the problem? Well, it seems Sanders was a well-known and well-liked cop in his community. As of December 8, an impressive 350 people (that’s 8% of Social Circle’s population) have signed a Change.org petition calling on City Manager Adele Schirmer to reinstate him. The petition says this in urging people to #StandWithSanders:

A young man passing by Sanders traffic stop yelled out profane words F— the police. Upon questioning the individual, Sanders asked the young man to own up to his actions and speak with integrity. He was insulted through this young man’s actions, and it is unfair that he is the individual who suffers the most.

Before you ask why anyone has to “suffer” anything as a result of a) addressing an opinion to a public servant or b) feeling “insulted” by it, remember that it’s 2016. “Victimhood culture” is now a sociologically documented phenomenon, feelings rule facts and the proper response to feeling offended by something is to shriek at the top of your voice about it until someone comes by to fix the problem and tell you how awesome you are.

Just as it would be unfair to judge the Founders by our standards for owning slaves, so too would it be wrong to call out Sanders for acting like a petulant man-child. And for the sake of Chief Oliver’s mental health, I hope he has no plans to hire Emory alumni.

Rather, the interesting question, in light of the video, is whether Sanders’ conduct was really all that unbecoming and worthy of a firing. It’s clear that a decent chunk of the community doesn’t think so. And if you look at some of the reasons Oliver gave for firing Sanders, it’s unclear they hold up as well as the media, which for the most part dutifully repeated what he said, would have you believe.

Take the traffic stop itself. Oliver implied it was pretextual and possibly bogus:

“He did state that he pulled them over for failure to maintain lane. When you look at the video, the vehicle did hit the white line but it was after he was coming up on them with a high rate of speed,” Oliver insisted.

But of course, it’s not bogus. There’s no “startled by a cop” exemption for hitting the white line, and as Fault Lines contributor and former cop Greg Prickett will tell you, if a police officer wants to legally pull someone over, following them to make them nervous until they break one of America’s numerous, byzantine traffic laws is the oldest trick in the book.

That does make the stop pretextual, but ever since the Supremes decided Whren v. US (1996), pretextual stops haven’t been a problem. They’re a bread-and-butter tool of law enforcement, especially useful when the cops see someone (perhaps someone young, and black, and whose hat’s real low) and think they look drugg-y, but unfortunately can’t stop them for that reason. The fact that the pretext in Sanders’ case was to poorly disguise how he was mad at a teenager may be embarrassing for Sanders, but it doesn’t make the stop any less lawful.

Nor is it of concern that Sanders threatened the teens with hauling them out of the car and searching it and everyone for marijuana. Ultimately, he made it clear he had no intention of doing so: towards the end of the video, before he lets the kids who didn’t yell at him drive off, he says he was kidding and points out that such a search would be unlawful. Barring probable cause to suspect drugs on the kids or the car, that’s true. But if Sanders had really wanted, it wouldn’t have been hard to search anything he liked while staying in compliance with the Fourth Amendment.

For instance, he could’ve invoked the usual “training and experience” boilerplate to claim he reasonably suspected the kids were armed and dangerous, or that there was a weapon in the car. Under Terry v. Ohio (1968), he could’ve frisked the kids for guns, and under Michigan v. Long (1983), he could’ve looked through the car. Any drugs he found in the process would, needless to say, be admissible evidence.

Or he could’ve claimed he smelled marijuana, and his “training and experience” led him to conclude the kids had some. That’d give him reasonable suspicion, enough to satisfy an extension of the stop to bring in a drug dog under Rodriguez v. US (2015). Thanks to the courts’ belief in the magic crime-fighting powers of K9 units, getting one to alert on the kids or car is all it takes to supply probable cause. Sanders could’ve even arrested the driver for the traffic infraction, impounded his car and searched it at the station. He had a lot of options.

Leaving aside the claim about Sanders’ misleading statement, which is tough to evaluate from a distance – the Walton Tribune reports that Oliver said there were “several discrepancies” between it and the video – it seems the most upsetting thing to city administrators about Sanders’ conduct, judging from Oliver’s comments, was how he responded to a juvenile provocation. Claiming that he wimped out when a teen taunted him is one way to look at it, and it’s possible to watch the video and come to that conclusion.

At the same time, while it’s hard to deny Sanders went on for too long, there’s a good argument that what he did amounted to a dressing-down or a stern talking-to, the sort of thing adult authority figures are basically supposed to do with teens. The Change.org petitioners are right to note that “Sanders asked the young man to own up to his actions and speak with integrity,” and those media outlets (like CBS) that described his conduct as “yelling profanities” ignore that he was just repeating the kid’s words back to him.

In a different, less emotional time, an “intervention” like Sanders would’ve been considered good community policing. Even if his motives were selfish, the pedagogical value of calling a kid out for yelling a dumb, rude thing remains. Sanders didn’t actually drop the hammer on anyone. And it’s interesting to note that Sanders and his partner were at least acquainted with the kid and his family; Sanders noted that he’d seen him testify at a drug trial, and his partner knew his stepdad.

In an age where cops who order their dogs to chew off helpless men’s faces remain on the force, at least until they shoot and kill elderly librarians, it’s odd to see cops like Sanders get the boot for what amounts to a case of the feelz over a teenager’s taunt. Maybe a stern talking-to of his own would’ve been appropriate. But it’s hard to argue anyone was harmed because he made a lawful stop and asked a rude kid to own up to his language. Sanders has already appealed his termination; City Manager Schirmer should at least consider listening to the petitioners and giving him his job back.

40 Comments on this post.

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  • Keith
    9 December 2016 at 9:42 am - Reply

    In a different, less emotional time, an “intervention” like Sanders would’ve been considered good community policing.

    Agreed, and if he stopped there, I’d be more than willing to cut him slack on being terminated. But when he said he’d be searching the car and taking them all in if he found a seed, he went beyond, let me give these kids a community policing “talking to” and moved firmly into “I’ll show you what happens when you challenge my authoritay….” territory.

    That’s no longer, “no harm, no foul”. It certainly wouldn’t have been had there been a seed.

    • TJefferson
      5 February 2017 at 11:15 am - Reply

      No, you don’t have to have thick skin, you can be as sensitive and emotional an officer as you want to be….however, you must obey the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and all relevant state laws.

      In other words, having a badge and a gun doesn’t give you the right to violate the rights of citizens just because you don’t like it. Just yell something back if it bothers you.

  • dm
    9 December 2016 at 11:10 am - Reply

    Always amusing to see David Meyer Lindenberg’s notion of being a “civil liberties fan.” Making excuses for butthurt cops abusing their authority makes you the opposite of a civil liberties fan. I you’re the future of civil liberties we’re all fucked.

    • David Meyer-Lindenberg
      9 December 2016 at 11:33 am - Reply

      So I guess I can count on your support when I run for Congress?

      • Ileana
        9 December 2016 at 2:13 pm - Reply

        Snarky response to DM. Weak argument discounting Sanders’ abuse of authority. Running for Congress.

        Ah, so THAT’s why you’re supporting this policeman (and by extension, his brethren).

        Tsk. Tsk.

        • shg
          9 December 2016 at 2:31 pm - Reply

          When someone writes a post, the basis for their view is the post itself. When someone comments, it’s about the post, which already expresses the writer’s view. What isn’t necessary is that they then re-explain themselves to every pseudonymous person who leaves an insipid comment to the post. Reasonably intelligent people grasp this. Blithering idiots do not, and then may go even further by taking an unwarranted dive down the rabbit hole by extending it beyond what’s written. It’s a common failing.

          There’s nothing wrong with being a blithering idiot. as the world needs all kinds, but it would be unkind not to inform them of their intellectual challenges. Perhaps this provides your with a better perspective.

  • Mark
    9 December 2016 at 11:28 am - Reply

    @DM This post is satire, which you would have obviously noticed had you read the whole thing.

    • dm
      9 December 2016 at 12:06 pm - Reply

      Had you read a number of Meyer-Lindenberg’s other posts it is you who would realize that it is, sadly, not satire. Unfortunately, he really doesn’t have an issue with a butthurt cop abusing his authority in this manner and the chilling effect repeated conduct like this has on free speech.

      • shg
        9 December 2016 at 1:50 pm - Reply

        It’s always interesting to see how things look through different lenses. DML’s beef was that cop was fired for this, while other cops remain on the force, and departments circle the wagons, around killers. You see the first part. You ignore the second part. DML doesn’t excuse the unlawful stop, and makes that abundantly clear, and yet that doesn’t register. Kinda the way cops see the rest of us, simplistic and binary.

        • dm
          9 December 2016 at 5:46 pm - Reply

          SHG wrote “DML doesn’t excuse the unlawful stop, and makes that abundantly clear . . ..” Actually, no, he doesn’t and that fact is abundantly clear. When DML writes that “there’s a good argument that what [the officer] did amounted to a dressing-down or a stern talking-to, the sort of thing adult authority figures are basically supposed to do with teens” he is excusing violating someone’s free speech rights because a cop got butthurt. When DML writes “[i]n a different, less emotional time, an “intervention” like Sanders would’ve been considered good community policing. Even if his motives were selfish, the pedagogical value of calling a kid out for yelling a dumb, rude thing remains,” he again excuses the violation of free speech rights based upon a cop’s butthurt. Arguing that one officer should not be fired for violating someone’s free speech rights because other officers do worse but are not fired is simplistic and binary, as is white knighting for the person who made that argument.

          • shg
            9 December 2016 at 6:31 pm -

            “Actually, no”? Are you twelve? Try this.

            But of course, it’s not bogus. There’s no “startled by a cop” exemption for hitting the white line, and as Fault Lines contributor and former cop Greg Prickett will tell you, if a police officer wants to legally pull someone over, following them to make them nervous until they break one of America’s numerous, byzantine traffic laws is the oldest trick in the book.

            That does make the stop pretextual, but ever since the Supremes decided Whren v. US (1996), pretextual stops haven’t been a problem.

            Which, “actaully, no,” deals with the “unlawful” stop, as opposed to your bizarre non sequitur.

        • dm
          9 December 2016 at 6:51 pm - Reply

          Uh oh, SHG is now as butthurt as was officer Sanders. You should go pet a puppy while your feelz recover.

          • shg
            9 December 2016 at 7:24 pm -

            I like puppies. They’re tasty and tender when properly prepared.

          • David
            9 December 2016 at 8:08 pm -

            Impressive. shg quotes the language that rips you a new asshole (not that he had to, since the rest of us can read even if you can’t), and you call him butthurt? Even for a 12 yo, that’s some feat.

          • Dwight Mann f/k/a “dm”
            10 December 2016 at 12:01 pm -

            David, I wasn’t aware that Scott had hired a lickspittle to cruise the comments section. Congrats on the new job! P.S. If that’s what you see I pray you’re not actually an attorney.

            [Ed. Note: No, calling someone a “lickspittle” does not elevate your comment from worthless ad hominem to deeply thoughtful, even with your name now attached. If you have no actual thought to contribute, then you don’t get to comment anymore.]

          • Dwight Mann f/k/a “dm”
            10 December 2016 at 1:40 pm -

            Oh, now I get it! Someone obsequiously claiming that you ripped me a new asshole constitutes a thoughtful comment while me calling that person a lickspittle is a thoughtless comment that get’s me banned from commenting. A lot of people consider you to be a major league twat – they’re not wrong.

          • shg
            10 December 2016 at 2:23 pm -

            Good to see you’ve come around.

          • Dwight Mann f/k/a “dm”
            10 December 2016 at 2:44 pm -

            Damn. Just when I was sure that I really disliked you you go and say something funny causing me to laugh. I suppose I should convey my gratitude for not “permanently” banning me. As Zack Mayo famously stated, “I got nowhere else to go! I got nowhere else to g… I got nothin’ else.”

  • Ben
    9 December 2016 at 11:40 am - Reply

    I know that Rodriguez v. US only concerned police detaining you longer than necessary in order to wait for a drug dog. But is it broader than that? If a police officer detains you longer than necessary to run your plates and write a ticket (if they decide to do so), in order to verbally harangue you about something (which isn’t a crime and is protected by the 1st amendment), why isn’t that an unconstitutional seizure?

    • Ben
      9 December 2016 at 11:43 am - Reply

      I just realized that I wasn’t clear in the last sentence about what “isn’t a crime”. I meant to point out the fact that he’s lecturing you about doing a thing which isn’t illegal, and in fact has explicitly been held to be protected 1st amendment criticism of police.

    • Keith
      9 December 2016 at 11:48 am - Reply

      I asked the same question here.

      The answer was that the very taking of the license during the stop might be a seizure. Which is complicated by the fact that a motorist must present it upon being asked.

  • Anon
    9 December 2016 at 2:38 pm - Reply
  • Richard Kopf
    9 December 2016 at 4:21 pm - Reply

    David,

    Not to put too fine a point on your excellent post, but I would have been fine if the cop gave the kid a double hard noogie, a nasty boxing of the ears and then a soccer-style kick in the ass followed by the admonition that things could get much, much worse if the cop ever heard from the boy again. I fucking love community policing.

    In short, Sanders deserves a medal, not a firing. All the best.

    RGK

    • dm
      9 December 2016 at 5:55 pm - Reply

      Fuck judge, you’re thinking too small. Why not throw the asshole a parade and then have him spend a few days in the local schools lecturing the kids about how the First Amendment is shit if it involves upsetting a cop.

      • JohnM
        12 December 2016 at 3:48 pm - Reply

        Agreed.

        We have a lawyer and a judge approving of this all-hat-no-cattle jackass who created the situation and did everything possible to escalate it to a tragic ending? Sadly, the only person in this video who had any composure was the kid.

        “I’m giving you every opportunity to fuck me up.” That’s the man they’re defending. A shit-bag hiding behind his badge.

        Since we’re all going on the feelz from the old-dayz-that-never-existed when everyone kowtowed to authority, then why not just beat the kid to within an inch of his life for his transgression? Put a bullet in his leg? That’ll teach him a lesson. Wait… Is that too far now? We’re not cheering him on anymore? ‘Cause if that kid had so much as flinched, that would almost certainly have been the outcome.

        You know the guaranteed way that the state could avoided 100% of all bad possible outcomes here, including this one? Just let it go.

        However, it’s apparent from the Judge (I wish the cop had beat the kid up), Picket (I always found a reason to fuck with someone whenever my ego was wounded), and others here that letting it go is (a) never on the agenda, and (b) condoned up and down the food chain.

        The contempt of the state for its citizens is on full display here.

        • David Meyer-Lindenberg
          12 December 2016 at 4:52 pm - Reply

          I’m the judge, right? And it’s “Pickett.” Like the charge.

    • Anon
      9 December 2016 at 6:31 pm - Reply

      You mean like the above YouTube post.

      They don’t make them like Buford T. Justice anymore.

      Amazing the difference 39 years makes on the culture.

      • Richard G. Kopf
        10 December 2016 at 9:46 am - Reply

        Anon,

        “Amazing the difference 39 years makes on the culture.” Indeed!

        All the best.

        RGK

  • bacchys
    9 December 2016 at 7:24 pm - Reply

    He shouldn’t be fired. He should be strapped into a restraint chair, put in a room without windows, and the kid he decided to abuse his authority on given a bat and total immunity for whatever he does in that room for 20 minutes.

  • bacchys
    9 December 2016 at 7:29 pm - Reply

    Because law enforcement is allowed to be ignorant of the law, and it’s unreasonable to expect a “reasonable officer” to understand that the powers he’s been delegated aren’t supposed to be used to assuage his hurt feelz.

    So, this would be one of those “minimal” violations of the Fourth Amendment where the judge basically says “fuck off” to the aggrieved and the silly notion that laws matter.

    • David Meyer Lindenberg
      10 December 2016 at 6:28 am - Reply

      I realize you’re just venting, but this case has nothing, and I mean nothing to do with Heien. Don’t make people who read your comments stupider.

  • Greg Prickett
    9 December 2016 at 9:40 pm - Reply

    There is so much to comment on here.

    First, to those who claim that the pretextual stop was illegal, it was not, assuming that touching the white line is a traffic violation in Georgia (and I’ve seen nothing to indicate that it was not a violation). The officer has the authority to pull people over for that type of traffic violation, even if the stop was for the speech.

    Second, when people yell “F**k the police” out the window at officers, they are looking for police attention. Every single time that someone yelled that at me when I was a cop, I contacted the individual or group. I would point out that they wanted my attention, and they got it. About half the time, I made an arrest or arrests based on the stop, normally based on the individual’s intoxication. For some reason, about half the people that yell that stuff at the po-po are also drunk to some degree. I never wrote a ticket nor did I berate the person for their speech, but I did contact them.

    Third, if you are going to stop someone for speech, you damn sure don’t punish him for that speech. Telling the other people in the jeep to take off and make the juvenile walk is not acceptable under any circumstances.

    Fourth, Georgia is an at-will employment state, and this was the fourth disciplinary action in two years, one involving a dispute with the local high school where Sanders allegedly made threats to mail anthrax to the school. I would have fired him then, but the department clearly had problems with his actions. And they are just as clearly entitled to terminate his employment over this.

    Finally, I understand David’s point that officers who have done much worse have not been fired. I completely agree with that, many officers have done worse and not been fired. That is not the issue at hand, however, the issue is Sanders conduct. Had this been the first problem that Sanders had, I could see a written reprimand or a day or two suspension without pay. But this was the fourth incident in two years, and termination may have been the appropriate action.

    • David Meyer Lindenberg
      10 December 2016 at 6:13 am - Reply

      I decided not to cover Sanders’ disciplinary history because it seemed to me to have no bearing on this incident and little on whether he should be fired. You’re right that most of the media to cover this story called what he did “threatening a school,” but it was the HuffPo (the HuffPo!) that bothered to dig deeper.

      Turns out what he said was a joke, even by the admission of the high school admin who reported him. Holding this against him would be consistent with today’ hysteria culture (cf. “niggardly,” “Hi, Jack!,” “see something, say something” etc) but I decline to do it.

      And do you think Sanders was giving an order when he told the kids to make their friend walk? To me, again, it didn’t sound like he was being serious. Though it was amusing that they chose to take him up on it.

      • Greg Prickett
        10 December 2016 at 10:33 pm - Reply

        I’ll defer to you on the school episode, but the point still remains that Sander’s had a fairly significant disciplinary history. On the order part, yeah, he was giving an order. People tend to do what cops tell them to do, and if they tell you to leave, most people will leave.

    • Anon
      10 December 2016 at 11:02 pm - Reply

      1. “I would point out that they wanted my attention, and they got it.”

      “Afternoon boys. I heard you trying to get get my attention and thought that you must need some help. No? Huh. You didn’t say “Help! Police!”? My mistake. Mind if I poke my head inside and ask this young lady if she’s okay? Thanks. *you okay’ ma’am? *Sniff, sniff.* [….] I noticed you weavin— yeah, you crossed that white line back there. Also, did you know your license plate is a bit obstructed? Yes sir — that bit of plastic trim on the holder is covering up a portion of the plate. But… hey, I’m just gonna give you a warning. *Hands back license, secured by middle finger.* Drive safe, now!”

      Incidentally, I’m not sure how viable the violation is, given the cop basically forced it by bearing down on him (with lights?).

      2. You’re much more forgiving than me. If an 8-year officer doesn’t know better than to threaten a kid….
      Also, what are the odds that Officer “High-Drag, Low-Speed” wouldn’t be so willing to offer the same shot at the title to one of GSP’s All-Stars?

      3. A moment of appreciation for the Jeep driver taking a left off the main road.

  • Anonymous
    9 December 2016 at 10:00 pm - Reply

    SHG,
    Stop ruining the comments with your know it all attitude. We get it…You think you’re super smart.

    The only one worse on here is the guy who always comments “read it again.”

  • Agammamon
    10 December 2016 at 6:13 am - Reply

    “At the same time, while it’s hard to deny Sanders went on for too long, there’s a good argument that what he did amounted to a dressing-down or a stern talking-to, the sort of thing adult authority figures are basically supposed to do with teens.”

    Adult ‘authority’ figures don’t have blanket coverage to stop any teen they deem to be insufficiently well-behaved. Police officers especially. Every authority figure’s authority is restricted to a well-defined sphere.

    Yeah, the kid was an asshat. And nothing he did was illegal. He *exceeded* his authority when he started the dressing down, even if, technically, he was authorized to make the stop.

    The kid didn’t learn to behave – best you can say is that he has learned to hate and fear the police a little more.

  • Boomer
    11 December 2016 at 10:32 am - Reply

    An armed LEO, outweighs a punk teenager by at least 70 pounds, and stands on the side of the road berating the teen, all the while daring, repeatedly, the teen to attack him is an officer who is sooner or later going to crack and kill someone because he has no self control.

    When I saw the video footage, I flashed back to three viral videos, one of which landed a testosterone fueled animal masquerading as an LEO in jail.

    Sanders must have been inspired by the actions of Salvatore Rivieri in Baltimore, and it’s a shame he didn’t learn the lesson Rivieri had to learn the hard way.

    Or, perhaps, Sanders viewed the behavior of sergeant Shawn Glans as “perfectly within the law.” Glans only mistake, in Sanders eyes, must have been indulging his ego while on camera. Glans admitted that he “would have done things differently had he known he was being recorded.” Character is what happens when no one is looking.

    Finally, the instant, the very instant that Sanders dared the teen to fight him he joined the same class of animal as Jenchesky Santiago, now serving time in prison for holding his pistol to the head of a citizen, and shrieking, “I dare you fucking fight me son.”

    Sanders is a joke, with no self control. He’s better off selling appliances at J.C. Penny’s than he is patrolling the streets with a firearm.

  • Nathan
    15 January 2017 at 3:08 am - Reply

    I wouldn’t stand for this bully. This is a brand of professionalism that belongs in a bar from a bouncer, not a LEO. Riddance and hopefully this officer finds another job and learns his place a peacekeeper, not a provocateur to the general public.

  • Jimmy
    15 March 2017 at 6:36 am - Reply

    Does First amendment include shouting profanities? Can you walk down the street and say “fuck you’ all you like? Can you say anything you want? If so, where does it stop? Can I walk past you on you on the street and comment about how I’d like to rape you? What if someone said something vile to a child? Is everything ‘free speech’? Where do yu draw the line? The kid made a lewd comment in public… It’s illegal, because society doesn’t tolerate that kind of nonsense.