March 15, 2012

Don't Drive Outside Your Own State

The Fourth Amendment proves to be no barrier to this Collinsville, Illinois cop's desire to harass a couple of rotund, middle-aged Trekkies from Ohio. It's a long video, but amusingly-edited and -narrated enough to reward sticking through the whole thing:

This guy had every right, under the Constitution, to refuse the request to search his car. But, as in so many of these cases, asserting his rights is simply seen as an admission that he's got something to hide. And, as so often, this officer proceeds to manufacture dubious "probable cause" with little regard for the law and the (no doubt justified) confidence that he'll be able to do whatever he feels like without much risk. There's little recourse for a citizen in such circumstances, so publicly shaming the cop by posting the video is about all he could do.

I learned through years of touring with my band that driving across the country with California plates, while technically allowed, is nonetheless seen as a suspicious act and treated as an open invitation to stop and harass the driver and passengers. Often the officers would be quite straightforward about it. "Sorry boys, just wanted to get a look at the freak show. So you're from Cali? Must be niceā€¦" And of course, these friendly look-and-see stops would almost always lead to searches, sometimes quite extensive ones, that I now know we could have, technically, refused. But not really. In reality it's prohibitively impractical to refuse the question "mind if I take a look in your van?" They're not going to take no for an answer.

If they let you go, it's only so they can follow you till you do something they can construe as a traffic violation, and then use that to extort your "cooperation." e.g., "No, you can't pay the ticket now and you can't mail it later because we have no compact with the State of California. We'll have to impound your van till your court date. You're free to go though. There's a bus station about five miles down the road. But tell you what, if you let me take a look inside, just to make sure everything's okay, we can forget about the ticket and you can be on your way. Guys like you, seems like you've got somewhere important to be. Am I right?" And yes, we were always late for a show and opted for what seemed like the path of least resistance, though sometimes that would lead to hours on the roadside while the officers dismantled the van piece by piece.

So yeah, there's usually nothing you can do but thank God you didn't get shot. At least these days, you can make an amusing video afterwards. And that's something.

(via Radley Balko, who reports in an update to his post that the Collinsville Police Department disputes the video's narration and defends the officer's conduct, and that he'll be writing it all up for the Huff-Po. Something to look forward to.)

Posted by Dr. Frank at March 15, 2012 11:49 PM