by Anthony W. Accurso
Police are tasked with upholding the law, but current case law has created a system where officers are actually incentivized to break the law by making bogus traffic stops.
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that citizens will be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. The Supreme Court has found it reasonable for a police officer to initiate a traffic stop for even the most minor of traffic infractions and has provided police with the presumption of truthfulness such that their testimony can only be undermined by clear evidence that contradicts their testimony (such as video footage).
Though the Court has attempted to place limitations on police authority by requiring probable cause or consent for searches and limiting traffic stops to their essential purpose, too many officers abuse this authority too often.
Perversely, there are social and financial incentives for doing so. When an officer concocts a pretext for initiating a traffic stop that results in the seizure of narcotics, weapons, or a wanted person, they are rewarded for protecting the community. Further, law enforcement agencies conduct large-scale operations where officers are encouraged to identify as many traffic violations as possible in a short period of time as a means of raising money for the agency or the municipality.
For instance, Spartanburg County in South Carolina annually stages “Operation Rolling Thunder,” which netted the seizure of nearly $1 million by searching 144 vehicles in 2022. More than 350 cars were pulled over for the campaign, mostly for minor or entirely subjective violations.
Most drivers, pulled over on highways or in remote areas and small towns, simply capitulate, paying small fines and hoping any individual encounter doesn’t result in too much hassle. Drivers don’t collectively realize the scale of the problem nor act in concert the way police do.
Sometimes though, police go too far and oppress a driver who is willing to fight. Mario Rosales was ticketed by police in Alexandria, Louisiana, for failing to signal a turn. Officers pulled him over, had him exit the vehicle, and frisked him. Through a series of questions, they determined that he had recently moved to Louisiana from New Mexico but had not updated his driver’s license quickly enough. In the meanwhile, they directed dispatch to search law enforcement databases for outstanding warrants or prior drug convictions that could be used to justify a drug dog search of his vehicle. He had neither, and the obviously frustrated officers released him and his passenger with the aforementioned citations.
Rather than just paying the fines, however, Rosales found a business near where he was stopped which had a security camera that recorded him properly signaling the turn.
He then fought the citations in court, resulting in the release of the dash and bodycam footage from the officers, which showed both that he had signaled the turn and that the officers had fabricated the infraction for the sole purpose of searching for narcotics. Rosales then engaged lawyers at The Institute for Justice (“IJ”) to file a civil rights action against the officers and the Alexandria Police Department.
“The Fourth Amendment promises that police will not detain us on a whim to search for crimes,” said IJ attorney Marie Miller. “They have to reasonably suspect a person of a crime to stop and interrogate them about it. The Constitution is the highest law in the land and officers can’t violate it in pursuit of a crime.”
Too many people find themselves in a situation like the one Rosales faced, yet without corroborating evidence like the security footage he obtained, officers who lie prevail in court by relying on the court’s deference of taking them at their word, despite the fact police officers aren’t any more truthful than the average person.
“I did nothing wrong, but still found myself standing on the side of the road wondering whether I’d be arrested,” said Rosales. “What happened to me was wrong and I’m trying to hold the police and the city accountable because they are certainly treating other people the same way. Police have an important job to do, but they have to follow the Constitution.”
Sources: jalopnik.com, Forbes.com
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