Just the Facts: Why the Shooting of Philando Castile Was Unjust

June 25, 2017

Seven shots rang out across the Twin Cities skies after an encounter that lasted only seconds. With his dying last breath, Philando Castile whispered, “I wasn’t reaching for it.”

Fast forward a year and the police officer responsible for shooting Castile was acquitted of all charges. The city immediately fired the policeman while the family of Castile was left asking why their son, brother, and father was dead.

The trial over Castile’s death was a miscarriage of justice. Philando Castile lost his life because he was a black man constitutionally carrying a gun.

The facts do not support a police officer in imminent danger 

Jeronimo Yanez, the police officer involved, was charged and acquitted of Second-Degree Manslaughter, among other charges, for killing Philando Castile. The case made national news after Castile’s girlfriend, who was in the car, began broadcasting live on Facebook mere moments after the shooting took place.

Dash cam footage released showed the event. And a transcript of what happened is now available:

9:05:00 p.m. — Castile’s vehicle came to a complete stop.
9:05:15 – 9:05:22 p.m. — Yanez approached Castile’s car on the driver’s side.
9:05:22 – 9:05:38 p.m. — Yanez exchanged greetings with Castile and told him of the brake light problem.
9:05:33 p.m. — St. Anthony Police Officer Joseph Kauser, who had arrived as backup, approached Castile’s car on the passenger’s side.
9:05:38 p.m. — Yanez asked for Castile’s driver’s license and proof of insurance.
9:05:48 p.m. — Castile provided Yanez with his proof of insurance card.
9:05:49 – 9:05:52 p.m. — Yanez looked at Castile’s insurance information and then tucked the card in his pocket.
9:05:52 – 9:05:55 p.m. — Castile told Yanez: “Sir, I have to tell you that I do have a firearm on me.” Before Castile completed the sentence, Yanez interrupted and replied, “Okay” and placed his right hand on the holster of his gun.
9:05:55 – 9:06:02 p.m. — Yanez said “Okay, don’t reach for it, then.” Castile responded: “I’m… I’m … [inaudible] reaching…,” before being again interrupted by Yanez, who said “Don’t pull it out.” Castile responded, “I’m not pulling it out,” and Reynolds said, “He’s not pulling it out.”
Yanez screamed: “Don’t pull it out,” and pulled his gun with his right hand. Yanez fired seven shots in the direction of Castile in rapid succession. The seventh shot was fired at 9:06:02 p.m. Kauser did not touch or remove his gun.
9:06:03 – 9:06:04 p.m. — Reynolds yelled, “You just killed my boyfriend!”
9:06:04 – 9:06:05 p.m. — Castile moaned and said, “I wasn’t reaching for it.” These were his last words.
9:06:05 – 9:06:09 p.m. — Reynolds said “He wasn’t reaching for it.” Before she completed her sentence, Yanez screamed “Don’t pull it out!” Reynolds responded. “He wasn’t.” Yanez yelled, “Don’t move! F***!”

Reynolds started live-streaming onto Facebook about 40 seconds after the last shot.

Reynolds: “Stay with me, we got pulled over for a busted tail light in the back. And the police just he’s, he’s, he’s covered. He, they just killed my boyfriend.
Yanez: “F***.”
Reynolds: “He’s licensed. He’s carried, he is licensed to carry.”
Yanez: “Ma’am, just keep your hands where they are.”
Reynolds: “I will sir. No worries. I will.”
Yanez: “F***!”
Reynolds: “He just shot his arm off. We got pulled over…”
Yanez: “F***.”
Reynolds: “…on Larpenteur.”
Yanez: “I told him not to reach for it. I told him to get his hand off of it.”
Reynolds: “He had, you told him to get his ID, sir, and his driver’s license. Oh my God. Please don’t tell me he’s dead.”

The police then handcuffed Reynolds, the girlfriend, next to her young daughter – who was begging for her mom not to be shot.

Notice the timeline: Castile had handed over his proof of insurance to the police. Yanez requested a license and Castile, from the facts, was preparing to hand that over as well. You can’t know for sure, of course, but that was the reasonable next step in the traffic stop.

The pivotal moment comes as Castile tells the officer that he was carrying a gun after presenting his proof of insurance. Immediately, Yazen inexplicably lunged for his gun.

In seconds, from 9:05:55 – 9:06:02 pm, Yanez ordered Castile not to pull out his gun. Castile confirmed and said he was not pulling out his gun. After that, Yanez yelled and fired seven bullets into a small car.

Philando Castile died in that car with his girlfriend beside him, and daughter in the backseat. Everyone is lucky that Yanez didn’t hit either of them – directly or indirectly – while firing into the confined space of a car.

Yanez’s excuse for firing makes no sense 

Police have the authority to fire if they believe they face reasonable danger to their lives. The key word is reasonable – they can’t invent a threat. When you come to Yanez’s reasoning for firing, that’s what you find (emphasis mine):

I don’t remember how many rounds I let off. Um, I remember seeing the last two rounds go off and I remember seeing one of those rounds hit him in the arm. Uh, his glasses flew off. I’m not sure if it was from gunfire or from him, uh, whipping his head back or anything like that. Uh, but, uh as that was happening, as he was pulling at, out his hand, I thought I was gonna die and I thought if he’s, if has the, the guts and the audacity to smoke marijuana in front of a five-year-old girl and risk her lungs and risk her life by giving her secondhand smoke and the front-seat passenger doing the same thing then what, what care does he give about me? And, I let off the rounds and then after the rounds were off, the little girls [sic] was screaming. I held the suspect at gunpoint. His arms came up into view. And they were up by his chest. I can’t remember what I said. But I acknowledged this little girl first. Cuz I wanted her to be safe and I told Officer Kauser or I told her one of the two to go run out of the car and run to Office Kauser or Officer Kauser to get her. And then I turned my attention to the front-seat passenger. I didn’t point my firearm at her. I still had it on the suspect. Cuz he was still moving.

Let’s grant for a moment that Yanez believed he was in danger. His thinking is completely absurd and matches no standard in law. It explains he feared Castile, but that fear isn’t reasonable. Unreasonable fear is not a basis for the police to shoot at civilians.

He’s saying he believed that Castile had smoked pot around a child, that made Castile an imminent threat. What he’s describing is a police officer irrationally panicking – not a rationally prudent person.

Notice this last point on Yanez’s statement. It doesn’t come close to matching what happened on the dash cam or the transcript. He was too busy cursing, yelling, and trying to justify why he shot Castile. He wasn’t calmly checking the passengers as he claims – he was in a state of total panic.

Yanez panicked irrationally, forgot his training, and fired into a car during a routine traffic stop. That’s not merely a tragedy – it’s second-degree manslaughter.

Constitutionally carrying a weapon does not make you a dangerous person

Let me be clear about this: A man exercising his Constitutional rights to carry a gun is not a threat. Traffic stops where an armed man informs the police he is legally carrying happen hundreds of times a day. It’s a common occurrence. Police are specifically trained to handle everyday, routine situations like this one.

What is uncommon is Yanez’s reaction to this black man legally carrying a gun. Guns at traffic stops are standard. Yanez created the escalation, horrifically misjudged everyone, and blasted seven bullets into Castile.

Yanez’s fear may have existed, but it was irrational. Statistically speaking, concealed carriers are the most law abiding people in America. In fact, they’re less likely to commit a crime than the police.

The standard retort is that there’s no way for Yanez to have known these facts. And that’s patently false. Yanez asked for identification from Castile. A quick license check reveals everything. What Yanez’s defenders are arguing is that Castile was reaching for his gun.

That makes little sense. Yanez asked Castile for his identification. Castile said he wasn’t moving for his gun. It’s far more reasonable and rational to believe he was reaching for his ID.

There is no reasonable or rational expectation to think Castile was going to pull his gun on Yanez because of “marijuana around a child.”

A reasonably prudent person would not have presumed Castile was so dangerous he needed to die. A reasonable person doesn’t speculate a person is a marijuana smoker and thus dangerous. A reasonably prudent officer does not react like Yanez.

Yanez escalated an ordinary, routine task and made it far more dangerous than normal. He shot Castile because of that self-created escalation and had no reasonable expectation of imminent harm. That is the definition of second-degree manslaughter. Yanez should not have been acquitted.

Philando Castile should not be dead 

Here’s the end point: Philando Castile should not be dead. Jeronimo Yanez handled a routine traffic stop in the worst way possible. Had he followed standard operating procedures, Castile would be alive today.

The disturbing part for gun owners, if you tell a police officer you’re carrying, this case gives them wiggle room to shoot you. Even more alarming for black gun owners: even if you follow the law entirely, you’re not guaranteed protection.

The jury treated a black legal gun owner as complete justification for a police killing. It would have been better for Castile to have lied to the police about having a gun.

If citizens, particularly blacks, are scared enough for their lives that lying to the police is the better option, we’ve crossed into dangerous territory. Lying to the police just to protect your life is not a free or just society.

It’s been shocking to see the NRA silent in this case. The only voice to speak out about this is Colin Noir. And he only spoke as a private citizen – not an NRA spokesman. The implications of this case for gun owners is chilling. Constitutional rights cannot be considered justification for police to kill.

Protecting Western Civilization means standing for constitutional rights in every situation. We need to provide checks and balances for our police forces, to protect them and ourselves, from abuses. Police are not inherently evil; they are an integral part of holding our society together.

Pushing for reforms like body cameras is a great start towards making our criminal justice system work better. We should work towards ideas that make us both safe and secure our rights. Americans should not live in fear of what will happen to them during a routine traffic stop.

Philandro Castile did not have to die. Justice demands we do better in the future.

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Daniel Vaughan

Daniel Vaughan is a columnist for the Conservative Institute and lawyer in Nashville, Tennessee. He has degrees from Middle Tennessee State University and Regent University School of Law. His work can be found on the Conservative Institute's website, or you can receive his columns and free weekly newsletter at The Beltway Outsiders. Connect with him on Twitter at @dvaughanCI.