Tuesday, March 08, 2011

In which I perform a public service

Since I generally avoid flying these days, and Greyhound over that distance is too long to be workable, getting to Auburn meant renting a car, and a long drive, mostly along I-40, from Las Vegas to Alabama.

While I was in Texas, I was stopped on a flimsy excuse, detained, interrogated, and subjected to a long forced search of my car by two cops from the Texas Highway Patrol.

I am fine: I was not arrested, not ticketed, and nothing was seized; at the end of the day, aside from a paper warning, I ended up with nothing other than an annoying delay, an attempt at a petty humiliation, and a sad reminder of the sort of random-sweep police state tactics that are routinely used, with the minutest of ritual gestures at a sort of farce on "due process," against people who are often legally innocent, who are "suspected" on the most unreasonable of "suspicions" and detained on the most specious of pretexts, and who, even if they are legally at risk, are almost never morally guilty of threatening the rights or liberties of any identifiable human victim whatever. I am awfully lucky in a couple of respects, and the sad fact is that many people are subjected to this kind of thing who come away from it a lot worse, even though they are no less innocent than I was.

I didn’t have much at hand to record what was going on, and I had a long drive ahead of me, so bear in mind that this is all written from memory, and the location is an estimate. Because there was no escalation of legal threats against me, I just got on my way as quickly as possible and did not take down the details or the detaining officers’ names.

I had stopped for the night in Tucumcari, New Mexico, and in the morning I set out along I-40 into Texas, towards Amarillo. About half an hour past the state border, near Vega, a black Highway Patrol SUV pulled onto the road behind me and followed me in the left lane. The posted speed limit was 70 mph, and at the time I was driving on cruise control at about 75 or 77mph or so. Since my speed was so close to the posted limit, I wasn’t sure whether the cops intended to pull me over or just wanted to pass me and drive up the road, so at the next opportunity I signaled and shifted over to the right hand lane, then slowed down to 70mph even. The patrol car did not get over or flash their lights, but did not pass me either, and continued driving in the left lane just a little behind me or to the side of me for several miles. (We passed by at least one exit.) There’s no way to know for sure, but in retrospect I wouldn’t be surprised he was hanging back to see if he could catch me in a traffic violation that would provide a stronger pretext for the stop. Finally he got tired of waiting for me to change lanes without a signal or whatever; he slowed down again, shifted into the right lane behind me, and flashed their lights; I pulled onto the shoulder, took out my wallet and waited with my hands on the steering wheel.

Now the first state trooper gets out of his SUV, in the usual Texas Highway Patrol silly-suit. I didn’t ask for a name, so we’ll call him Cowboy Hat. Cowboy Hat tells me he pulled me over for driving "a little fast"; I said sorry about that, handed him my driver’s license, and when he asked for proof of insurance I told him that the car was a rental and handed him the rental contract. Cowboy Hat asked where I was going and I said Alabama; he thought about this for a minute and then decided to have me step out of the car, then sit down on the passenger side in the Cowboy-mobile while he typed things up on his computer. He then began asking more questions, mostly about things that were none of his business (where I worked, what I did, how I could take a two-week vacation from my job to visit my family, why I live in Las Vegas, what my wife does there, where my luggage was, why I rented a car to drive out of town, etc.) When he began repeating questions that were already asked and answered, changing subject seemingly at random, and peppering them with questions about my history with the law — if I had any warrants out, if I’d ever "been in trouble," it became clear that he was using the standard cop procedure to try to put me off guard and work up an answer that would help him gin up some "reasonable suspicion." Then Cowboy Hat came around directly to asking if I had any drugs in the car. "Nope." Any guns? "Nope." Any cocaine? "Nope." Any marijuana? "Nope." I should have forgotten about trying to get back on the road quickly, and just trusted my instincts earlier that this was where the whole thing was going and simply said that he had my identification and I would not answer any more questions without an attorney. This wouldn’t have changed my situation with him any — it was clear enough by now that he was going to do anything he could to get to a search of the car, but it would have made me feel better and relieved me of having to try to explain my business to a belligerent armed stranger who believes that it is his job to try to trip up, manipulate and lie to the Suspect Individuals he forces off the road.

In any case, at this point Cowboy Hat wrapped up by asking me if he could look in the trunk. I told him, calmly, "Not without a warrant." The dramatic irony here is that I knew there was in fact nothing at all in the trunk — literally nothing, not even my underwear; just the rental company’s spare tire and jack. I had no drugs or guns to find anywhere in the car, and I had left all my luggage plainly visible in the back seat. But I do not believe in allowing police to search me or anything of mine without a warrant. I value my privacy, and I do not believe in giving government police any latitude to harass or humiliate random people off the street. (There is in any case no possible legal benefit to helping out the police in their efforts to search, seize or question; you may as well make them work for it.)

To his partial credit, Cowboy Hat didn’t go out of his way to try and further bully or intimidate me after that. (I’d say he was "polite," but of course there is no way to be polite to someone when you’ve used coercion to pull them off the road, while they are minding their own business, and interrogated them about a lot of things which are none of your business.) He simply said that he was giving me a warning for the speed, and he would be calling a canine unit to do an "open-air search" with a drug sniffing dog. I shrugged and waited in the SUV. While we were waiting for the handler and the dog to arrive, Cowboy Hat suggestively informed me that I "seemed a bit nervous," as if he meets a lot of people every day who love to be pulled over and interrogated by highway police.

After a very short time — maybe 2 or 3 minutes at most — another SUV comes down the highway and pulls over onto the shoulder. Another cowboy hat gets out — we’ll call him Officer Friendly with what looks like a golden retriever. They then commence to engage in the Supreme Court-approved method of ginning up "Probable Cause" for a warrantless forced search when you don’t have any; it looks something like this. Officer Friendly jogs all the way around the car with the dog at a run. Then at a slightly slower pace he directs the dog over to the car, pulls back a little on the leash to get the dog to jump up and stick its face at the door or window, and jogs down a bit to the next part of the car. When it’s jumping up at the passenger-side front door the same way it jumped up at the other doors, the dog paws at the door a bit. They come back around and do the same trick again. I guess this is "signalling." Of course, this is odd, since I know that there are no drugs in the car. There are, however, food from breakfast and wrappers from some gas-station snacks in the front seat.

Officer Friendly comes over to talk to Cowboy Hat for a minute then turns to me to ask whether there are any illegal drugs in the car. "Nope." Any guns? "Nope." Cowboy Hat then informs me that the dog signaled and that he is going to search the car. The passenger-side window was rolled down to talk to him when he first made the stop, so he goes over and unlocks the car at that door, then starts rifling through my stuff in the front seat and the back seat while I sit in the SUV and wait. Officer Friendly comes by, I guess to watch me.

He’s a chatty fellow and tries to talk. I guess it’s possible he was doing a Good Cop/Bad Cop thing in tandem with Cowboy Hat to try to get more information or check my story, but I don’t think he had much invested one way or the other in the bust and didn’t ask much in the way of direct questions, so I chatted with him about websites and college football. Meanwhile Cowboy Hat is now rifling through my luggage in the back, dragging out my box of book and pamphlets to look through, and finally comes back around to demand the keys for the trunk. The dog didn’t indicate anything at all anywhere near the trunk, but whoever said probable cause has to be very probable? He takes the keys and opens up the trunk, to find nothing at all in it. He stands there staring for a minute and then picks up the cover to look down at the spare tire compartment. He stands there staring for another minute, feels around in the compartment, and finally shuts the trunk. But while he’d gotten what he asked for, he hadn’t gotten what he wanted. I expected I’d be done in another minute, but instead Cowboy Hat goes around and spends another five or ten minutes opening up the hood and staring at the engine block, feeling around under the car to find my magic compartment or whatever he expected, and finally tossing everything back into the backseat and closing up the car.

He gives the keys back and has Officer Friendly hand me back my driver’s license and printed citation. Officer Friendly tries to shrug off the obvious false positive from the dog-sniff, and says that, since it was a rental, there’s "No knowing what was in that car the day before yesterday." I shrug and Cowboy Hat mutters that I’m free to go and I should "drive safe," at which point I waited for the next opportunity, got back on the road, and changed my planned route so as to spend as little time on Texas highways as possible (I was going to take I-40 to I-20 through Dallas; instead I took I-40 across the panhandle, straight through to Oklahoma City and on to Memphis). I didn’t take down the time, but my subjective recollection is that the whole thing took about half an hour or so.

On my way from Vega to Amarillo and out of the state, I noticed that the Highway Patrol was everywhere — there had been one stop I saw before Cowboy Hat stopped me, and by the time I got past Amarillo I saw a total of 7 or 8 other cars pulled over, with more than one of them involving multiple lights-flashing patrol cars on a single pulled-over car, and more than one with another person being obviously interrogated at the side of the road. I wonder how many of them were trying to work their way up to a search like the one inflicted on me. Given the response time for the dog handler on my own search, it’s obvious that they were keeping the dogs nearby. I don’t know, but given the obviously pretextual stop in my case, the really dense police presence, and the high number of multiple-cruiser stops, I wonder whether this was part of another stupid "drug corridor" sweep.

As for the search: it was based on "suspicion" that consisted entirely of the fact that I was very slightly over the speed limit (no more so than surrounding traffic), that I was driving a rental car from out of state, and Cowboy Hat’s completely unquantifiable gut feeling that I must be hiding something. When I refused to consent to a baseless search this was taken as reason to detain me longer and find a way to carry out the search by hook or by crook. The hook in this case was a farcical ritual in which a dog was jogged around the car to get a signal which I know to have been a false positive, so that Cowboy Hat could toss my books and papers, pop my car’s hood, and rifle through my underwear. I never had any drugs and in fact I have never carried drugs or a gun in my car in my entire life. If I had, this would, of course, be a peaceful lifestyle choice that is none of Cowboy Hat’s business anyway. But I hadn’t, and the fact that the magical dog-search was used to justify a warrantless contraband search of a random car pulled over on something that couldn’t even merit a traffic ticket is a good indication of just how secure you are in your person, papers, and effects these days. There are, I guess, four possible explanations of why the dog signaled in the first place. I know that it is not because there were drugs in the car (as Cowboy Hat found out); that leaves us with the following:

1. It could have been a fraudulently-obtained false positive. Handlers of course have no trouble making trained dogs do more or less whatever they want them to do. You might think that it’s uncharitable to believe that police would do this as a pretext for an otherwise-baseless search, but given the long history of acknowledged police abuse, the incessant series of baseless asset forfeiture cases, and the weekly parade of corruption stories, I have no reason to extend the benefit of the doubt to a random cop off the street.

2. It could be a simple false positive; sometimes dogs do the things that human trainers interpret as a "signal," even though they didn’t smell anything, either for reasons of their own or because they are expected to. There’s no way to ask the dog for clarification, of course. Without any conscious manipulation police dogs have been observed to give absurdly high false-positive rates, especially when handlers subconsciously signal the fact that they expect to find something.

3. It could be that the dog was jumping at the food I had in my passenger-side front seat — there were left-overs from breakfast and snack-wrappers there, and if the dog could smell drugs he no doubt could smell breakfast too.

4. As I repeatedly told Cowboy Hat (because he repeatedly asked), this was a rental car which I had had for all of one day (which was clear from the rental contract). Of course, it’s possible that the dog really smelled drug residue; although I have no reason to assume that that’s the case. But if it is the case, I was, after all, driving a car that had been driven by hundreds of people before me. Any one of them could have put anything in the car.

Some of these explanations are more benign and others are more malign. But whichever explanation is the correct one, it ought to be a reminder how incredibly thin and really stupid this sort of "evidence" is as a "probable cause" basis for holding me or anybody else hostage and rifling through our stuff. Given how absurdly little transparency there is in the training and handling of police dogs, that dogs are far more likely than not to signal when subconsciously primed by their handlers, that the "signals" are all common dog behaviors that may be provoked by any number of things, and that even if the signal is in some sense accurate, in a case like mine there is no way to determine whether it came from anything I did or from something that any one of a hundred people before me did, causes for search can get by on being pretty "improbable."

I am glad that I stood up for my rights in all this, whether or not I had anything to "hide." I’d do the same in a heartbeat, and would in fact cooperate less than I did. I should say that there are a couple respects in which I was just plain lucky. I happened not to be carrying any drugs or guns, but if I were, there is no reason why I ought to be subjected to this kind of interrogation, or search, or hauled away to be locked in a cage at the end of it. I am lucky that Cowboy Hat, unlike some cops, did not choose to escalate his intimidation tactics when I asserted my rights, although if he had I would have stuck to my refusal all the more firmly. I am relatively privileged, as far as law-force encounters go, in that I’m white, Anglo, no longer a teenager, and seem obviously to be what the cops would consider "middle class." If I spoke with a different accent, or had a different color of skin, or looked younger, I would no doubt have had it even worse. And it is just sheer, dumb luck that, besides not carrying any drugs or guns in the car, I also was not carrying any significant amount of cash (I had all of $3 in singles in my wallet).

Whether or not they found anything, no matter how flimsy the pretext, had I been carrying any amount of cash above what Cowboy Hat personally felt to be reasonable and lawful, I could quite probably have been subject to asset forfeiture, based on nothing more than the sniff-test and the amount of the money. It’s happened plenty of tims before, including with Texas cops. If I had had cash, and they decided to seize it, it would almost certainly be gone forever; the money would be kept back in Texas, and the burden would be on me to prove (how?) that it wasn’t drug-related. Lots of people are, unfortunately, much less fortunate than I am in some or all of these respects, and are subjected to all kinds of hell on similarly flimsy grounds (the car, it was 5mph over the speed limit! the dog, she barked! I had a feeling!). I was just lucky.

The consolation in all this is twofold.

First, the entire experience was exasperating, but since I knew ahead of time that there was nothing — literally nothing — in the trunk, I did get the minor satisfaction of watching Cowboy Hat standing around like a jackass staring at an empty trunk, peeking with fading hope at the spare tire, and then spending the next few minutes wandering around trying to find some kind of secret compartment in my engine block or under the car.

Second, while I was subjected to a flimsy stop, a harassing interrogation, and an utterly bogus forced search, I asserted my rights, and while they were harassing me, Cowboy Hat, Officer Friendly, and their magic golden retriever were off the road for a good half-hour or more, occupied on petty harassment of me with nothing at all to show for their effort at the end of it. That all sucks, but the minor consolation is that at least while they wasted their time on me, the road was that much more open for honest drug-dealers, gun-smugglers and people with cash under their seat to drive through unmolested. I didn’t volunteer for this, but given that I was drafted into it I consider making the cops work for their search, and this entire waste of police time and resources, to be a minor act of public service to my fellow motorists, who might have came out of it worse than I did.

Original report here

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