Playing It Safe: How the Supreme Court Sidesteps Hard Cases and Stunts the Development of Law

By Lisa A. Kloppenberg | Go to book overview

3
The Court Uses Standing to
Discourage Redress for
Racial Wrongs

Early one morning in 1976, two members of the Los Angeles Police Department (“LAPD”) stopped Adolph Lyons, a twenty-four-year- old African American, because one of the tail lights on his car had burned out. The officers, with guns drawn, ordered Lyons to get out of his car, face his car, and spread his legs. After he complied, the officers told him to put his hands on his head, and the officers patted him down. He then dropped his hands back to his side. The officers immediately ordered him to put his hands back behind his head, and one officer grabbed Lyons’ hands, slamming them hard onto his head. Lyons complained about the pain caused by his key ring, which he held in his hands. Within five to ten seconds, one officer began to apply a choke hold by pressing his forearm into Lyons’ throat. As Lyons was struggling for air, the officer handcuffed him and continued to apply the choke hold until Lyons blacked out. He was almost choked to death. When he returned to consciousness, Lyons was lying face down on the ground, choking, gasping for air, and spitting up blood and dirt. He had urinated and defecated. The officers released him after issuing a traffic citation.1

Mr. Lyons was fortunate that the choke hold did not kill him. Between 1975 and 1982, sixteen people died from the LAPD’s use of choke holds.2 Although African American men constituted only 9 percent of the city’s population, they comprised 75 percent of the persons who died from po- lice choke holds. Many other African American citizens suffered injuries short of death from choke holds. According to official altercation reports, LAPD officers used choke holds almost one thousand times between 1975 and 1980. The actual number may be higher, because officers and citizens do not report all altercations, and the city of Los Angeles does not keep records of injuries to suspects.

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