An African-American man was stopped by police because he committed a minor offense. Soon, four officers confronted him with their guns drawn. The cops ordered him to stand facing his car, to spread his legs, and to put his hands on top of his head. Shortly after the man briefly lowered his hands and complained that a key ring he had in his hands was causing him pain, an officer placed him in a chokehold. The man eventually passed out. When he awoke, he was facedown on the ground. His pants were soiled with his own urine and feces. And he was spitting up blood and dirt.
These are not the facts of the Eric Garner case, a man who recently died after a New York police officer placed him in a chokehold. These are the facts of a 1983 Supreme Court case named City of Los Angeles v. Lyons. The victim in that case, a black man named Adolph Lyons, was choked out by police in 1976 shortly after he was pulled over for driving with a broken taillight. Yet the justices’ decision in Lyons likely played a role in allowing police chokeholds to continue to this day. At the very least, Lyons made it much, much harder for victims of these chokeholds to ensure that other people were not victimized in the future.
Worse, Lyons was just one of many individuals that Los Angeles police targeted with a chokehold, often with fatal results. According to law professor and dean Erwin Chemerinsky’s book The Case Against the Supreme Court, Lyons discovered that sixteen people died after being choked by an LAPD officer, almost all of whom were black men. When police Chief Daryl Gates was asked why almost all of these fatal chokeholds involved African Americans, Gates replied that the “veins or arteries of blacks do not open up as fast as they do in normal people.”
Yet the story of Adolph Lyons and the case that bears his name is also the story of how arcane legal doctrines can reshape decades of police practices. Lyons was a 5–4 decision. If just one more justice had sided with Mr. Lyons, it may have enabled the courts to prevent cases like Garner’s from ever happening.
To understand Lyons, it is important to understand how courts behave after plaintiffs have already won their case. Plaintiffs may request various forms of relief from the defendant that injured them. In most cases, they typically receive what are known as “money damages” — an order from the court requiring the plaintiff to compensate them from their injury. In cases where the defendant’s wrongful conduct is ongoing, however, a plaintiff may seek an injunction forbidding the defendant from continuing their illegal actions in the future.
A federal trial court determined that the LAPD’s policy in place when Lyons was choked “authorize[d] the use of the holds in situations where no one is threatened by death or grievous bodily harm, that officers are insufficiently trained, [and] that the use of the holds involves a high risk of injury or death as then employed,” although this policy was later changed. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court held that Lyons could not seek an injunction forbidding police from using chokeholds in the future.
The crux of the Court’s holding in Lyons is that “[p]ast exposure to illegal conduct” does not permit a plaintiff to seek an injunction. Rather, “Lyons’ standing to seek the injunction requested depended on whether he was likely to suffer future injury from the use of the chokeholds by police officers.” In order to clear this bar, Justice Byron White’s opinion laid out the extraordinary burden Lyons had to overcome:
In order to establish an actual controversy in this case, Lyons would have had not only to allege that he would have another encounter with the police, but also to make the incredible assertion either (1) that all police officers in Los Angeles always choke any citizen with whom they happen to have an encounter, whether for the purpose of arrest, issuing a citation, or for questioning, or (2) that the City ordered or authorized police officers to act in such manner. . . .
[E]ven assuming that Lyons would again be stopped for a traffic or other violation in the reasonably near future, it is untenable to assert, and the complaint made no such allegation, that strangleholds are applied by the Los Angeles police to every citizen who is stopped or arrested, regardless of the conduct of the person stopped. We cannot agree that the “odds,” that Lyons would not only again be stopped for a traffic violation but would also be subjected to a chokehold without any provocation whatsoever are sufficient to make out a federal case for equitable relief. We note that five months elapsed between October 6, 1976, and the filing of the complaint, yet there was no allegation of further unfortunate encounters between Lyons and the police.
In dissent, Justice Thurgood Marshall explained what the Court’s holding would mean in practice. “The Court today holds that a federal court is without power to enjoin the enforcement of the city’s policy, no matter how flagrantly unconstitutional it may be,” Marshall wrote. “Since no one can show that he will be choked in the future, no one — not even a person who, like Lyons, has almost been choked to death — has standing to challenge the continuation of the policy.” Under Lyons, “if the police adopt a policy of ‘shoot to kill,’ or a policy of shooting 1 out of 10 suspects, the federal courts will be powerless to enjoin its continuation.”
Had Marshall’s view prevailed, it is possible that Eric Garner would still be alive today. Although the NYPD has had a policy banning chokeholds since 1993, this policy has been wholly ineffective in halting the practice. As the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf explains, a civilian review board received 219 chokehold complains against NYPD officers in just a single one-year period between 2013 and 2014. “Thousands of NYPD chokeholds” have occurred, according to Friedersdorf, despite an “outright ban.”
The power of an injunction is that it takes the question of how such a ban will be enforced out of the hands of local officials and gives it to a judge who should have no stake in the case other than wanting to see their own injunction enforced. If rampant chokeholds continued even in the presence of an injunction, the judge could have potentially held the NYPD in contempt, or ordered other extraordinary relief to pressure them into compliance. If nothing else, it would have meant that the officer who choked Garner to death would have gone to work that day knowing that his actions were being watched by a powerful federal court.
If one more justice had joined Marshall’s opinion, any one of the people illegally choked by New York police could have sought an injunction preventing other people from being victimized. That may have been enough to save Eric Garner’s life.