I read, with an increasing sense of dread, Clair McFarland’s recent article about an officer-involved shooting in Thermopolis. I use the word “dread” because I am a civilian and a citizen, and the same thing can happen to me.
It can happen to you, too.
I won’t recap the story here, you can read it for yourself and draw your own conclusions. But the gist is, a cop broke down a citizen’s door without a warrant of any kind and against the advice of the county attorney's office. A gunfight resulted, with the household resident dying and the cop being wounded.
We in Wyoming are a law-and-order citizenry, and are generally supportive of law enforcement. The Brown & Gold backs the Blue, so to speak.
But that support is not, nor should it be, unconditional. We Wyomingites have every right to expect our police to follow the law and Constitution when they discharge their duty to protect us. Cops take an oath to do precisely that.
If police do not follow the laws they are sworn to enforce, they become criminals with badges and guns. Nothing more, nothing less.
Clair’s piece does a fine job explaining the ins and outs of Wyoming statutes as they apply to this shooting. The “castle doctrine” and Wyoming’s “stand-your-ground” law all have bearing on what happened in that house in Thermopolis.
Legal niceties with regard to which law prevails in which situation are all parsed by a special prosecutor engaged to review the shooting. Again, read the article and draw your own conclusions.
But as you do, I’d like to draw your attention to the U.S. Constitution, a document which, in my opinion, governs in this case.
Specifically, the Fourth Amendment reads: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
If we citizens, in our zeal to be protected from criminals, tacitly or otherwise permit law enforcement to violate this fundamental civil right of other citizens, then we have no room to whine when it is our own door that gets kicked in without a warrant.
As Benjamin Franklin said, “Those who would give up essential Liberty to purchase a little temporary Safety deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
The shooting in Thermopolis should make every citizen in Wyoming think very carefully about this trade-off. Our citizen Legislature should review our Wyoming code of laws to make sure that our support for law enforcement personnel doesn’t result in the basic civil rights of everyday citizens being violated in the name of “public safety.”
I think of this situation as a test, friends and neighbors, and we’re all being tested. Just as in the case of the Patriot Act after 9/11 when we allowed our government to listen in on our conversations without a warrant, the tragic occurrence in Thermopolis should make us all ask, “Where do we draw the line?”
If we tolerate law-breaking government officials to violate the rights of those we might think of as the “criminal element,” then we should all look at our front doors tonight and ask ourselves, “What if …”
Like I said, this is a test.
Rod Miller can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org