|Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. |
(Photo from Library of Congress)
Early on the morning of October 6, 1976, 24-year-old Adolph Lyons was pulled over by two Los Angeles police officers for driving with a burned-out taillight. As the facts of the incident were later recounted by Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, "The officers greeted him with drawn revolvers as he exited from his car. Lyons was told to face his car and spread his legs. He did so." After an officer slammed his hands against his head, Lyons complained that the keys in his hand were hurting him.
What happened next nearly killed him:
Within 5 to 10 seconds, the officer began to choke Lyons by applying a forearm against his throat. As Lyons struggled for air, the officer handcuffed him, but continued to apply the chokehold until he blacked out. When Lyons regained consciousness, he was lying face down on the ground, choking, gasping for air, and spitting up blood and dirt. He had urinated and defecated. He was issued a traffic citation and released.Lyons, who was African American, sued the Los Angeles Police Department for damages and asked a federal judge to enjoin the further use of chokeholds except in circumstances where they might prevent a suspect from seriously injuring or killing someone. Lyons also argued that his constitutional rights had been violated by being subjected to potentially deadly force without due process.
His case, Los Angeles v. Lyons, eventually made it to the Supreme Court. In April 1983, the justices ruled against Lyons 5 to 4. The majority punted on the question of whether chokeholds are constitutional, instead finding that Lyons lacked standing to sue the LAPD since he could not prove that he might be subjected to a chokehold again.
Writing in dissent, Marshall blasted this as absurd: "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." Lyon's lawyer said the ruling turned any encounter with the police into a deadly game of chance. "The LAPD regulations mean Lyons everyday plays a game of roulette," Michael Mitchell said. "The wheel has 100,000 slots. If the ball should fall in your slot, you die."
In his opinion, Marshall presented a clear-eyed appraisal of the reckless use of chokeholds—a pattern of abuse most recently illustrated by the choking death of Eric Garner at the hands of a New York City cop.