Police Abuse

Pot Is No More Relevant to the Shooting of Philando Castile Than It Is to the Shooting of Botham Jean

An NRA spokesperson correctly says marijuana is not "germane" to Jean's death but keeps bringing it up when discussing Castile's.



When the Fox station in Dallas highlighted the marijuana found in shooting victim Botham Jean's apartment, the tweet drew criticism from the left and the right. Especially striking was a comment from Dana Loesch, the conservative TV and radio host who also serves as a spokesperson for the National Rifle Association. "How is this germane to what happened?" she asked.

Good question. Since Jean was killed in his own home by Amber Guyger, an off-duty Dallas police officer who said she mistook his apartment for hers and him for a burglar, the fact that Guyger's colleagues later found 10.4 grams of marijuana there has no bearing on her criminal culpability, as Joe Setyon noted earlier today. Yet Loesch seems to take a different view of marijuana's relevance in the case of Philando Castile, the driver who was shot and killed by St. Anthony, Minnesota, police officer Jeronimo Yanez during a 2016 traffic stop. Loesch, whose position on whether a jury was right to acquit Yanez of manslaughter is hard to pin down, has repeatedly brought up Castile's cannabis consumption, although it's not clear why.

Dashcam video of the incident shows that Yanez panicked after Castile, who had a concealed carry permit, calmly said, "Sir, I have to tell you that I do have a firearm on me." Yanez told him not to reach for his weapon, Castile assured him that he would not, and within a few seconds Yanez drew his gun and fired seven rounds, mortally wounding Castile. The evidence, including the testimony of Castile's girlfriend, who was in the car at the time, indicated that Castile was trying to retrieve his driver's license, which Yanez had asked to see.

The fact that marijuana was later found in Castile's car is irrelevant to the question of whether the shooting was justified, which depends on whether Yanez reasonably feared for his life. Yet while discussing the case on Twitter last year, Loesch said Castile was "in possession of a controlled substance and a firearm simultaneously, which is illegal." Although "possession of a controlled substance while armed" is a distinct offense in some states, Minnesota does not seem to be one of them. But Minnesota law, like federal law, does prohibit "an unlawful user of any controlled substance" from possessing a gun in any setting or circumstance. Loesch's point seemed to be that, contrary to what some critics of Yanez's acquittal have claimed, Castile's actions were not fully consistent with the law: Even though he had a carry permit, as a cannabis consumer he was barred from owning a gun. That's true, but it has nothing to do with the legality of Yanez's actions.

On her radio show this week, Loesch again mentioned Castile's marijuana, saying, "It didn't help after, and it came out, that he had pot in the car." Again, the pot in Castile's car has no more bearing on the legality of Yanez's actions than the pot in Jean's apartment has on the legality of Guyger's actions. Loesch also implied that Castile bore responsibility for his own death by asserting that the dashcam video shows him "grabbing [his] waistband 10 times" after Yanez told him not to. "That's what happened in the video," she said. "It made that already nervous, new cop even more nervous, and that's why he pulled the trigger." But the video does not show Castile reaching for his waistband even once, because it does not show what is happening inside the car.

The Atlantic's Adam Serwer, citing those comments, says "Loesch defends Castile's shooting as justified." I'm not sure that's accurate, since Loesch also said, "No one's saying that fatal force was required." That statement is ambiguous, since it leaves open the possibility that Yanez reasonably feared Castile was about to shoot him, even though Castile had no such intent. Loesch seems determined to obscure the legal issue at the center of Yanez's trial, and that fuzziness seems to suit the organization she represents, which has been notably reluctant to comment on the shooting.

Loesch's perspective on Jean's shooting is much clearer. "The Fourth Amendment does not give an off-duty officer the right to enter your home without a warrant and use fatal force against you because they made a mistake," she observed on her radio show. The day before on her NRA-TV show, Loesch suggested that Guyger, whose apartment is located directly below Jean's, should have known she was in the wrong place. Loesch also suggested that Jean, if he had been armed, would have been justified in shooting Guyger. "This could have been very different if Botham Jean had been…a law-abiding gun owner and he saw somebody coming into his apartment," she said. "If I see somebody coming into my house and I'm not expecting them and they're walking in like they own the place, I would…act to defend myself."

Serwer sees that statement as evidence of "the NRA's Catch-22 for black men shot by police." While "scolding dead people for being unarmed is standard procedure for the NRA," he says, "the NRA's conspicuous lack of outrage after the shootings of Philando Castile, Jason Washington, and Alton Sterling, all black men killed by police while in possession of a firearm, suggests an impossible double standard."

It is not fair to describe Loesch's comments about Jean as "scolding"; if anything, she was empathizing with him. But those 10.3 grams of marijuana do complicate Loesch's position: If he was a cannabis consumer, Jean, like Castile, could not be "a law-abiding gun owner." He was not legally allowed to own the gun that Loesch thinks might have saved his life. Depriving people of the constitutional right to armed self-defense for such trivial reasons is an issue that you might think would interest an organization whose raison d'être is defending the Second Amendment.