Eric Garner’s death shows exactly what’s wrong with the American legal system


At first glance, it’s yet another example of a law enforcement officer being cleared of charges for what was quite obviously an unjustified and unnecessary civilian death. But the story of Eric Garner’s homicide exposes so much more of what ails our legal and criminal justice systems.

Garner’s heinous alleged crime that was so deserving of police action, violent arrest, and ultimately death was…selling loose cigarettes out of their original packaging. In the allegedly free market capitalist society of Staten Island, New York, America, this is a misdemeanor offense, for which Garner had several charges already pending at the time of his suffocating death.

In New York, cigarettes are taxed and regulated so highly that they can cost more than $12 per pack. This insane bureaucratic scheme has inevitably created the black market that Garner was participating in - selling cigarettes out of their packs, avoiding the confiscatory taxes altogether, and pocketing the pure profits. Garner was no angel, but he was an entrepreneur, and in Dr Martin Luther King, Jr’s view entirely justified in not following the oppressive New York cigarette laws:

One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

But since what Garner was doing was still somehow illegal, NYPD was deemed justified in enforcing those laws against him. However, the enforcement mechanism must be proportional to the crime. Garner was not accused of a violent crime. He hadn’t raped anyone, killed anyone, stolen anything (except, it could be argued, the State’s precious revenue). So while you may attempt an arrest of him for his alleged crime, there comes a point when common sense should be employed, and a violent confrontation over cigarette taxes judged unnecessary.

Garner had already been arrested months before and was out on bail. His information was in the system. If you think he’s selling illegal cigarettes again, why not mail him a ticket or a court summons? Since he was already on bail and was going to have to be back in court soon anyway, why not wait until then to press further charges? Why does a misdemeanor tax violation require physical restraint?

But NYPD thought physical restraint was necessary, and the grand jury agreed, clearing of any criminal liability for Garner’s death the officer who broke 20-year old department policy by using the chokehold.

It turns out, this is not an isolated incident. Law enforcement officers are almost never indicted for anything they do while on duty, no matter the cause, allegation, or result.

In Texas, Harris County grand juries have declined to charge Houston Police Department officers with anything in the last 288 shooting cases they have heard. In their training, jurors run through a police shooting simulation that the district attorney says “helps grand jurors understand pressures of police work and the split-second decisions officers must make.” While it’s always useful to see both sides, the clearance rate in Houston suggests such “training” leads grand juries to clear bias in favor of police. That’s why most states have eliminated such information from their jury process.

But it’s not just Houston and New York. In Dallas only one officer was indicted out of 175 investigated for shootings from 2008 to 2012. The last officer indicted in Chicago was in 2007.

Between 2004 and 2012 there were 222,452 indictments handed down by Harris County, Texas grand juries. Three of them were officers for shootings. Three. In the last 10 years, only three Houston Police officers shot someone unnecessarily? Okay. And that’s only for unlawful shootings, one of the most serious allegations against those sworn to serve and protect. The clearance rates for lesser allegations (you know, like choking someone to death over unregulated free enterprise) are likely even higher.

But not for everyday citizens, as the Eric Garner case demonstrates so ironically. There were 8 people on the scene when Garner died. Garner himself, six NYPD officers (really? for a tax violation?), and a witness who recorded most of the encounter on clear cellphone video. Only one of them has been indicted since. In the land of the free, that heinous enemy of the state is, of course, Ramsey Orta, the witness.

Orta was not indicted for recording the scene that day, but for a firearm violation less than a month later. He claims to have been framed in retaliation for the recording, though.

Nothing so perfectly encapsulates the current state of criminal justice in the land of liberty like this. A white policeman cleared of killing a black man over a petty tax violation, while the man who recorded it faces charges. Dave Chapelle couldn’t write a more fitting critique.

Editor’s Note: Fox News senior political analyst Brit Hume took to Twitter to question the outcome in New York, noting the big difference between Garner’s untimely death and the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson:

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