BY: LAUREN GERAGHTY
The family of Deven Guilford, the Michigan teen who was fatally shot on February 28, 2015, during a traffic stop, filed a complaint in federal court on October 14, 2015. The complaint names the defendants as both Eaton County (the jurisdiction in which the incident occurred) and Sergeant John Frost. It further asserts claims under the Michigan Wrongful Death Act, the Fourth Amendment, and 42 U.S.C. §1983 based on the conduct of Sergeant Frost and the systematic policies and practices enforced by Eaton County.
The lawsuit comes after Eaton County declined to file charges against Sergeant Frost for the fatal encounter. In a report issued in June of 2015, the Eaton County Prosecutor’s Office detailed its investigation into the matter and affirmed the Sergeant’s conduct in the matter. In alleging violations of Guilford’s civil rights, the complaint first takes issue with the basis for the traffic stop and the interpretation of local traffic law. The night of the incident, Sergeant Frost initially stopped Guilford for flashing his headlights. As Guilford was driving, he flashed his lights at the oncoming car to signal it to dim the headlights; unfortunately, the oncoming car was a new Eaton County Sheriff’s Department patrol car operated by Sergeant Frost. Sergeant Frost stopped Guilford and his body camera captured their initial exchange.
In the initial exchange, Guilford first explained that he could not see because the Sergeant’s headlights were shining in his eyes. Although Sergeant Frost stopped two other drivers for the same reason night, those stops ended without even a citation.
The complaint contends that the stop, based on the local traffic laws, was an unreasonable search and seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Specifically, it argues that because local law does not prohibit momentary flashing of lights, the stop lacked a probable cause basis in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The local traffic law at issue states, “whenever the driver of a vehicle approaches an oncoming vehicle within 500 feet, such driver shall use a distribution of light or composite beam so aimed that the glaring rays are not projected into the eyes of the oncoming driver.”
The subsequent interaction between Sergeant Frost and Guilford escalated when Guilford refused to produce his license and registration and Frost signaled for back up. Guilford had left his wallet at his girlfriend’s house, so he proceeded to call her and record the event. After Guilford admitted that he did not have his license, Frost opened the driver’s side door of Guilford’s car and pointed a Taser in Guilford’s direction. Even though Guilford’s refusal established grounds for arrest, the complaint contends that all subsequent actions taken by Sergeant Frost were rendered illegal by virtue of the improper initial stop.
Frost next instructed Guilford to get down on the ground to be arrested and Guilford reluctantly complied while keeping his cell phone in hand. Frost then grabbed the phone and threw it aside as Guilford protested. Frost continued to instruct Guilford to put his hands behind his back and administers the Taser into his back. The Taser, however, was too close to its target and did not emit the full shock; instead, Guilford quickly got up and headed for Sergeant Frost. A physical altercation ensued, but no footage was captured. The incident ended shortly thereafter as Frost fired the seven fatal shots at Guilford.
While the death of Deven Guilford is hardly a novel tale of police deadly force, it does highlight the need to focus on systematic changes in law enforcement practices. Such cases point to a fundamentally flawed system of police practices and policies that allow and, further, promulgate confrontational policing and the use of deadly force by police officers. The common police practices and policies at issue here include those that instill a sense of fear in officers by emphasizing the elements of imminence and risk in every encounter, those that promote a zero-sum approach to policing efforts, and those that endorse heavy weaponry reliance and the ready use of deadly force. Consequently, such a restricted focus on adversarial and confrontational policing degrades the components of policing dedicated to the community and corresponding community-oriented practices.
Moving forward, efforts must be directed towards redefining the role of police forces within their respective communities to return to the goals of serving and protecting communities above all. This includes adopting new practices that involve more cooperative, collaborative, and de-escalation tactics, develop community engagement initiatives, enhance dialogues, and endorse alternatives to deadly force. If nothing else, recent cases of fatal police encounters like the case of Deven Guilford should serve as an impetus for change. Lost lives are too great a tragedy to allow aggressive policing to continue.
Complaint and Jury Demand, In re Estate of Guilford v. Eaton County, No. 15-01053 (D. Mich. filed Oct. 14, 2015) [hereinafter Complaint and Jury Demand]; see also, David Shortell, Michigan Teen’s Family Files Federal Lawsuit Over Fatal Traffic-Stop Shooting, CNN (Oct. 16, 2015), http://cnn.it/1X9yzR0.
Id.; see also, Rachel Greco, Deven Guilford’s Family Files Federal Lawsuit in Teen’s Death, Lansing St. J. (Oct. 16, 2015), http://on.lsj.com/1LtWM0d.
SeeMatt Mencarini & Rachel Greco, No Charges in Police Shooting of Deven Guilford, Lansing St. J. (June 18, 2015), http://on.lsj.com/1MI672; see also, News Release, Office of Eaton Cty. Prosecuting Att’y, February 28, 2015, Shooting Death of Deven Lee Guilford (June 16, 2015), http://www.eatoncounty.org/images/Departments/Prosecuting%20Attorney/Press_Releases/Guilford_Press_Release_-_updated_20150617.pdf[hereinafter Eaton Cty. Prosecuting Att’y Report].
Id.; see also, Radley Balko, Mistake Over High Beams Ends with Michigan Cop Killing Teen, Wash. Post: The Watch (June 22, 2015), http://wapo.st/1TI2ZZD [hereinafter Mistake Over High Beams Ends with Michigan Cop Killing Teen].
SeeComplaint and Jury Demand.
Matt Mencarini & Rachel Greco, No Charges in Police Shooting of Deven Guilford, Lansing St. J. (June 18, 2015), http://on.lsj.com/1MI672; see also, News Release, Office of Eaton Cty. Prosecuting Att’y, February 28, 2015, Shooting Death of Deven Lee Guilford (June 16, 2015), http://www.eatoncounty.org/images/Departments/Prosecuting%20Attorney/Press_Releases/Guilford_Press_Release_-_updated_20150617.pdf[hereinafter Eaton Cty. Prosecuting Att’y Report].
Mistake Over High Beams Ends with Michigan Cop Killing Teen; see also, Seth Stoughton, How Police Training Contributes to Avoidable Deaths, The Atlantic (Dec. 12, 2014), http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/12/police-gun-shooting-training-ferguson/383681/
 See id.; see also, Radley Balko, We’re Asking the Wrong Questions About Police Shootings, Wash. Post: The Watch (Mar. 18, 2015), http://wpo.st/Iooi0
Supra note 24; see also, David C. Couper, What I Wrote to the 21st Century Policing Task Force, Improving Police (Jan. 12, 2015), https://improvingpolice.wordpress.com/2015/01/12/what-i-have-to-say-to-the-21st-century-policing-task-force/
Lauren Geraghty is a 2017 Staff Editor of the Race and Social Justice Law Review.