Thoughts on the Death of Tyre Nichols and Respect for the Law

If anything positive can come from the tragic death of Tyre Nichols, perhaps the circumstances surrounding his death can help change the narrative surrounding the deaths of young Black men at the hands of the police. Following is a short summary of Tyre’s death.

On January 7, 2023 in Memphis, Tennessee, a 29 year old man named Tyre Nichols was stopped by officers of the Memphis Police Department for a traffic violation. After the initial contact with the officers, Tyre broke free and ran. After a short chase Tyre was caught again. At that point, Tyre was severely beaten while restrained by five Memphis police officers. Tyre died in the hospital from his injuries 3 days later.

The media and the public often talk about matters involving the police as if there is a great divide in opinion as to the law involving interactions between law enforcement and citizens. In reality, if you look at rulings of the United States Supreme Court on the critical legal of issues involved in a case like the death of Tyre, the law is very clear. Supreme Court Justices, from the most liberal to the most conservative, agree unanimously on these two critical points of law.

First, police officers have the right to detain people suspected of criminal offences, including traffic offences, for a sufficient amount of time to investigate. One case which discusses the legal issues involved in such cases is Arizona v. Johnson, 555 U.S. 323 (2009) Arizona v. Johnson :: 555 U.S. 323 (2009) :: Justia US Supreme Court Center. The unanimous decision in Arizona v. Johnson was written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who was considered one of the Supreme Court’s most liberal justices and who was appointed by Democratic President Bill Clinton.

In her opinion Justice Ginsberg quoted a previous case which stated that a “traffic stop [by the police] of a car communicates to a reasonable passenger that he or she is not free to terminate the encounter with the police and move about at will.” Police are given the responsibility to investigate criminal offenses. Part of that responsibility necessarily includes detaining suspects at times.

Second, although police officers have the right to detain citizens to investigate suspected crimes, citizens have a constitutional right against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government under the Fourth Amendment and against cruel and unusual punishment by the government under the Eighth Amendment. In short, citizens have the right against police officers using excessive force while the officer is fulfilling his or her responsibilities.

One United States Supreme Court case which discusses these issues is Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989) Graham v. Connor :: 490 U.S. 386 (1989) :: Justia US Supreme Court Center. The unanimous decision in Graham v. Conner was written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who was considered a staunch conservative and was appointed by Republican President Richard Nixon. Justice Blackmun wrote an opinion concurring in Justice Rehnquist’s decision and was joined by two other liberal justices, Justice Brennan and Justice Marshall.

Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote in Graham v, Conner that in an excessive force case the “question is whether the officers’ actions are “objectively reasonable” in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them, without regard to their underlying intent or motivation.” 

The law in my mind is pretty clear. Police have the right to detain suspects when they are investigating crimes and when detained, suspects do not have the right to leave. Just as suspects do not have the right to leave, police officers do not have the right to use force upon suspects beyond what is reasonable to allow the officers to do their jobs.

If we can keep these two issues in mind when we discuss issues such as the death of Tyre Nichols, George Floyd, Michael Brown, and others, instead of focusing as much on issues of race, perhaps we can have a more productive conversation as a nation regarding policing.