O’Connor: Hightower case demonstrates lack of cultural support for law enforcement

Twenty-eight new central New York recruits graduated from the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office Regional Police Academy on Friday, but they won’t be able to improve public safety if no one takes them seriously.

A New York state appeals court recently found that an unnamed Dewitt police officer overstepped his legal boundaries in 2012 for chasing a man with a Taser. But the details of the case prove it to be a perfect example of how the criminal justice system went after a police officer rather than the person who was guilty of the crime.

It started with a simple traffic stop: Darren Hightower, a Syracuse man, was legally pulled over for having overly tinted windows. The officer testified that he approached the car and asked Hightower questions. Hightower began to appear nervous and was reaching into his pockets. He then told the officer, “You’re harassing me,” and walked away while discarding bags of cocaine. After telling him to stop, the officer pursued Hightower with a Taser and brought him into custody.

The appeals court found that the officer didn’t have enough legal reason to suspect anything of Hightower other than his illegally tinted windows. They also ruled that the bags of cocaine couldn’t be used as evidence because the officer didn’t have the right to chase after Hightower in the first place. This came after Hightower plead guilty to his charges in court in December 2012.

This case stands as a downfall in our criminal justice system and law enforcement deserves more support from citizens, the courts and politicians than they’re receiving now. Many police officers may have the perception that American society has turned its back on them. They believe that the people — even our president — only want to address police brutality rather than take a stand on violence against the police. With that kind of cultural attitude, the police won’t be able to enforce the law.

From the facts that were given in court, there should have been enough cause to pursue the charges against Hightower. When the policeman made a legal traffic stop, he had the right to temporarily detain Hightower. This “Terry Stop” would have allowed the officer to ask questions in which Hightower wouldn’t have had to respond. However, in this situation, Hightower doesn’t have the right to walk away from the officer. This is especially true since Hightower reportedly dodged the questions aimed at him, though the court ruled the opposite.

What’s really unbelievable is that the story gets worse. Law enforcement found out during a nine-month multi-agency operation that Hightower had involvement in a million-dollar cocaine ring. His arrest was part of a larger drug pipeline. Supposedly, the felons brought the cocaine from New York City and Buffalo and had the intention of selling it in the central and upstate New York area, as reported by CNY Central.

Pulling out a Taser may have been an overreaction, but the law doesn’t allow Hightower to evade once pulled over, and the bags of cocaine gave the officer a reason to bring him in. This would be a totally different and unacceptable story if the officer was aggressive enough to do lasting damage to Hightower and would have been another case of wrongful police brutality on black Americans.

But that doesn’t mean we should make it easier for drug offenders nor does it suggest we should let the police get away with murder.

“Yes, definitely, there is a much greater awareness of and concern about police violence (and the costs of aggressive policing) in our communities over the last two years,” said Lauryn Gouldin, an associate professor of law at Syracuse University, in an email.

This heightened judgment of the police force likely stems from the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, in recent years in which the community reacted to the shooting of Mike Brown in 2014 by officer Darren Wilson, who was not indicted, and the national aftermath of the court decision.

Regardless, Hightower was found to have cocaine on him. And the appeals court must have known about the larger operation that caught nearly 40 people involved with the trafficking effort. However, the court still ruled that the Dewitt police officer overstepped his legal bounds for being too suspicious and the cocaine charges were dropped.

This should’ve been a common sense decision because there’s no reason to keep a man like Hightower, with several drug convictions, on the streets. Communities will no longer be secure when criminals like Hightower are not in prison for their actions, considering found that Hightower does not appear to be imprisoned at this time.

Gouldin said the Hightower decision follows a prior New York Court of Appeals case from 2012, People v. Garcia, which held that nervousness and furtive movements were not sufficient to permit an officer to ask the defendant whether he had committed any crimes.

“The suppression of the evidence is required by Garcia, which says that the officer lacked the requisite suspicion to continue questioning Hightower because just acting nervous (or) evasive isn’t enough,” said Gouldin. “If the officer lacked that suspicion, then Hightower was free to leave the encounter with the officer. If Hightower was free to leave the encounter, then, of course, the Taser was too much.”

The United States criminal justice system needs to wake up and realize who the force for good is. Felons shouldn’t be let off to roam the streets, and police officers shouldn’t be criticized for their duty because that would prove to be a danger for society.

While there have been too many police officers that have gotten away with horrific acts against civilians, the Hightower case is a part of a bigger picture to handcuff law enforcement’s hands behind their backs. It’s tough enough for officers to carry out their role, so lawmakers shouldn’t make it any harder.

Kyle O’Connor is a sophomore sport management major and political science minor. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at


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