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My first foray into SE Law was in response to a question regarding the legality of running from police. I have been challenged for not providing a legal answer, which I understand, but I think it is irresponsible for sites such as this -- even if not illegal -- to hand out legal advice without cautions. In this example, a 17 year old who obviously thought he knew the law is dead as a result of "standing up for his rights". Is there no room here for cautionary tales? If not, why not?

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    Would you feel just as guilty if you only gave practical advice and someone ended up doing something illegal because of it, and ended up in prison, or paying a heavy fine? This might sound aggressive but I'm really just trying to get at the nub of your objection here :) – jimsug Jul 23 '15 at 21:13
  • @bobstro you did not mention that the driver refused to produce his licence and registration, and that he was found to have had THC in his system, do you think it's okay to leave material facts out of anecdotes? Again, probably sounds more aggressive than I mean it to, I'm still trying to figure out what you object to and why. – jimsug Jul 23 '15 at 21:23
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    @jimsug bobstro's answer may have been incomplete, but I don't think that's relevant to the question here. The point is that someone who runs from the police could technically be exercising their rights and still get shot. We need to address how/whether/when to convey "Legal may not mean smart." – aebabis Jul 23 '15 at 21:53
  • @acbabis certainly, but I'd like it if the answers to this question could inform future decisions of the same kind, and so I think that understanding exactly what the problem was is useful. Perhaps the second comment is less relevant to the question, but if cautionary tales are to be used here, as the question seems to ask, surely some standards should be adopted as to their quality and accuracy. – jimsug Jul 23 '15 at 21:58
  • @acbabis and consider the corollary where someone who follows the unreferenced, uncited cautionary advice of someone on the internet gets arrested because the well-meaning information led to their doing something illegal. That is, IMHO, relevant to this, because if I recall, that's part of the reason there was a fuss about the answer in the first place. – jimsug Jul 23 '15 at 22:07
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    No, I did not knowingly leave those facts out. In fact, knowing that the kid (may have) punched the officer tilts things, but only slightly. Is having THC in your system, or not having a license in your possession a capital offense to be carried out by the officer on the spot? Does wearing a hoodie make you suspect? Watching the video, it's clear that the kid was given the impression -- wrongly or rightly -- that he was within his rights. In short, it seems bad advice led to his death. – bobstro Jul 23 '15 at 22:12
  • Ugh. Wanted to edit that comment. Wanted to edit to read: "May I ask what bearing his having smoked pot previously has legally?" instead. Apologies. – bobstro Jul 23 '15 at 22:17
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I think it's okay to include cautionary tales, but in my opinion, you must also at least answer, and primarily focus on, the legal question that was asked.

Bad answer:

Q: Is X legal?

A: I don't know, but if you do X, Y might happen.

Good answer:

Q: Is X legal?

A: Yes, in these situations (cite, cite, cite). No, in these situations (cite, cite, cite). Regardless of the legality, from a practical approach, ....

It is also good to remember that legal hypotheticals are useful in learning how the law works. Ridiculous hypotheticals1 are presented often by the Supreme Court justices, just to see how the legal theory of one of the sides would apply. Counsel gets nowhere if they try to reject the premises of the hypothetical. Don't read much into these hypotheticals other than attempting to expose the nuances of law. This site does not provide legal advice anyway.

1. See Oral argument of Bowman v. Monsanto: "or there's a 10-year-old who wants to do a science project of creating a soybean plant, and he goes to the supermarket and gets an edamame, and it turns out that it's Roundup seeds."

  • What does it mean for something to be "legal"? If undertaking an action can get one charged with a crime or civil violation, and there's a significant chance the charges will stick, is the action "legal"? It would be helpful if the law had distinct lines for "actions which are legal", "actions which are illegal", and "actions whose legality is subject to officer discretion". Since the third category of actions will inevitably exist in practice, it would be better to have the bounds of such discretion defined than leave both sides fuzzy. As yet legislators haven't done that, though. – supercat Jul 25 '15 at 17:54
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Here's my opinion1. I intend this to apply in general, unless I specifically refer to your answer to the abovementioned question.

Practical advice is okay, but legal information should be front and center...

Can you include some practical advice? I think so. Many answers do. But it should be easy for the person asking the question to find the legal answer to it. Why?

This is Law Stack Exchange, meaning that the answers should contain primarily legal information. By this, if I get a Not An Answer flag, the question I will ask is Does it answer the legal question?

I shouldn't have to dig through your answer to find the legal information. The person asking the question shouldn't have to dig through the answer to find the substantive answer. Other users who will vote on your question shouldn't have to, either.

Consider this - you go to a tourist information point:

You: "Hi, where can I find the Empire State Building?"

The other person: "We can't bust heads like we used to. But we have our ways. One trick is to tell stories that don't go anywhere. Like the time I caught the ferry to Shelbyville. I needed a new heel for m'shoe. So I decided to go to Morganville, which is what they called Shelbyville in those days. It's three blocks down that way. So I tied an onion to my belt, which was the style at the time. Now, to take the ferry cost a nickel, and in those days, nickels had pictures of bumblebees on 'em. 'Gimme five bees for a quarter,' you'd say. Now where were we... oh yeah. The important thing was that I had an onion on my belt, which was the style at the time. I didn't have any white onions, because of the war. The only thing you could get was those big yellow ones..." adapted from this

Sure this is an extreme example, but why do you want to make the person asking the question work harder to find the answer?

... and it should only be done when necessary and if you can include all the relevant facts

When in doubt, include more facts rather than less. Why? We're concerned about people being harmed while doing something legal, based on our information. Surely we should be just as, if not more, concerned about people doing something illegal based on our cautionary tales. This becomes even more concerning if they are uncited, unreferenced, and do not include all the material facts.

For this particular example there are some things which I probably would have mentioned (and the omission of a point here does not mean I would not have):

  1. The person was found to have THC in their system
  2. The person failed to produce their license and registration, because they didn't have their license (apparently this is a misdemeanor)
  3. The person assaulted the officer prior to his being shot

Here's the thing - the answer merely states:

the kid decided to play the "am I free to go?" line rather than cooperate, and the officer decided to escalate the situation. At one point, the officer pulls the kid out and attempts a take-down. The kid panics, breaks free, and runs. The officer pursues and eventually kills the kid with his gun.

Do you see a problem with this? We all have a degree of agency, and we can and do choose the facts that we think are appropriate to the situation. These cautionary tales get twisted and warped to the point where the story eventually becomes "he got pulled over and then was shot".

I know that slippery slopes are fallacies in general, but I'm sure the point I'm making is clear. The relevant facts should not be left out. If you do choose to leave them out, you are contributing to the misinformation on the internet, which is already plentiful. If we're concerned about people doing something stupid while within their rights, we should not provide examples of doing something illegal as proof that doing the legal thing isn't always the best idea.

Provide evidence where the material facts are similar. For this specific example, I don't think hitting an officer could be considered "not doing something illegal".


In short:

  1. Answer the question. Without this, your answer is, by definition, not an answer. This is Law Stack Exchange, so your answer should be one related to law.
  2. Make sure your answer is easy to find. As feetwet ♦ pointed out, SE sites don't really like it when your answer starts off-point if it doesn't come back to it extremely quickly. I think this is because people on the internet can be lazy with reading, because that usually forms a large part of what people do on the internet.
  3. If you want to include a real-life example, try to include the relevant information. No-one here should be in the business of misleading people.

Sidenote, which may be the topic of a further meta discussion later: if you're linking to a video, the onus is on you to ensure that people understand your question or answer. This might mean you need to summarise what has happened in the video. Linkrot is a pretty good reason not to rely on an external source to support your answer, whether or not it is part of the legal information or not. I'm not going to enforce it, but I'd imagine that making people go to another site to understand your answer is going to result in some downvotes if they don't do that, and your answer doesn't make sense as a result.


1. And I don't imply that any of the other moderators endorse it.
2. This means conversion to a comment, editing, or deletion, depending on the varying levels of usefulness.

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This is kind of funny because most of the debate on answers has centered on the issues of providing legal advice (which, it seems clear, is not to be expected or provided here).

I believe we have seen many answers on the site that provide practical advice as well as legal information.

Unfortunately, your first answer began as a story with no legal content that appeared at best tangentially related to the original question. Buried in there was some practical advice. But, for reasons I don't fully understand, if you start too far from site expectations of answers I have found SE communities loathe to forgive and forget the starting point even if you later bring the answer more in line.

That said, I would generally expect anecdotes to be considered among the lowest quality answers. Especially when someone is asking explicitly, "What does the law say?" Because we're trying to find great answers, not create an anthology of cautionary tales, and everyone has a story....

  • I have no issue with being downvoted. I have no illusions that it was a great answer from a legal perspective. My only motivation is that I have two sons who I often feared would face this same sort of situation and make a dumb decision and pay dearly for it. I could not avoid commenting after having viewed that video and the nightly news lately. Being "legal" doesn't matter when you're dead or injured. I stand by that. – bobstro Jul 23 '15 at 22:35

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