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In episode 15 of Supreme Court Briefs, a man with diabetes is beat up by the police who think he is drunk and just robbed a convenience store. Spoiler alert- he didn't.
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Dethorne Graham, who has diabetes, is about to have an insulin reaction. He has his friend, William Berry, drive him to a nearby convenience store to get some orange juice to counteract the reaction. Once he gets inside, he sees a really long line, making the store not so convenient anymore, and rushes back out to the car, directing his friend to drive him somewhere else to get the sugar he needs.
Meanwhile, someone across the street is watching them. That someone is M.S. Connor, a police officer who was a bit uneasy about what he just witnessed. To him, it looked like Graham was robbing the convenience store, based on the fact that he entered and exited the store so quickly in what seemed to be a getaway car.
Officer Connor immediately followed Graham and Berry’s car, flashing the patrol lights to pull them over about half a mile away from the store. As Connor approached the car, Berry frantically told him that Graham was a diabetic and he needed sugar immediately. Not believing him, Connor told the two to wait while he tried to figure out what happened back at the store. As Connor called for backup in his patrol car, Graham got out of the car, ran around it twice, and collapsed on the curb, passing out.
Connor handcuffed Graham. By the time the backup, which was four other cops, arrived, Graham had regained consciousness. The cops seemed to assume that Graham was just drunk. Some of them didn’t believe Graham had diabetes. When Graham pleaded with them to check his wallet for a diabetic identification card, one of the officers told him to “shut up” and slammed him down on the hood of the car. The officers roughed up Graham pretty bad, throwing him head first into the patrol car. Later Graham claimed they gave him a bunch of cuts and bruises, injured his shoulder, and even broke his foot.
As Graham waited in the back of the patrol car, a friend came by with some orange juice for him. However, the officers didn’t let him have it! Eventually, Officer Connor got a report that Graham had done nothing wrong at the convenience store, and the officers drove him home and released him. NO HARD FEELINGS, MAN. SO WE’RE COOL, RIGHT?
Well, no, we are not cool. Graham later sued the five involved police officers, as well as the city of Charlotte. Graham argued his constitutional right to be free from excessive force had been violated. The district court used a due process test from a case known as Johnson v. Glick to determine if the officers were acting out of “good faith” or just acting “maliciously or sadistically.” In other words, were the cops trying to keep order or were they abusing their power? The district agreed with the city, justifying the actions of the police officers. Graham appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which agreed with the lower court.
Graham appealed again, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in October 1988, almost four years after the incident. Because Graham claimed his Fourth Amendment rights were violated, the Court had to make a decision based on how reasonable it was for the cops to do what they did strictly based on the Fourth Amendment. Because “objective reasonableness” could be interpreted in many many ways, the Court concluded such a case would be better judged from the perspective of the officers on the scene.
On May 15, 1989, the Court announced they were unanimously in favor of Connor. The Court told the Fourth Circuit to look at the case again through the lens of the Fourth Amendment. They argued that doing that would make subjective concepts like malicious intent not applicable. Therefore, Connor was reasonably justified to assume that Graham had broken laws.