It’s the time of “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe,” of extreme tension between the citizens and the police. Many are appalled by what they saw in the dash cam video of Sandra Bland’s arrest or body cam video of Sam Dubose’s shooting, but it is worth noting that it was not long ago that police did not have the technology or the inclination to make or release footage of their arrests, and all we had to go on in cases like these was police testimony. The truth is that authorities, whether begrudgingly or not, have been made to be more transparent and have greater accountability for their actions than ever before.
And that’s why the ruling in the Supreme Court case Heien v. North Carolina is such a distressing step backward in the relations between the police and the public. The decision, made last December, actually allows the police to base a traffic stop on a reasonable mistake about the law – meaning that a cop can pull someone over for what they think is a crime, even if it isn’t actually one, and other evidence gathered from that stop (like narcotics) will be considered admissible in court. And police across the country have been getting away with liberties that only six months ago would have got their cases thrown out.
The law had already allowed for pretextual traffic stops (meaning the police stop someone for something small like failing to update their license tags when what they’re actually looking for is drugs), but now police don’t have to bother with actually waiting for the people they suspect of drug crimes to break a real law, so as long as they do something that kind of sounds like it could be against the law. Here are some examples, as gathered by a recent article co-published by VICE and the Marshall Project…
- Police in East Troy, Wisconsin pulled over Richard Houghton for having a pine tree air freshener dangling from his rearview mirror. Houghton was discovered to be in possession of marijuana. The arresting officers claimed that they believed any item attached to their rearview violated the state’s law concerning obstructing a driver’s view. They were mistaken, but because of the Heien ruling the marijuana was considered admissible anyway. Houghton was then charged with possession with intent to deliver.
- Felipe Campuzano was stopped while riding his bicycle down a sidewalk in San Diego, going at a walking speed alongside a walking female companion. The law the police invoked in the stop was a municipal one that forbid riding a bike on a sidewalk “fronting any commercial business,” a law designed to prevent shoppers from getting nailed by bicyclists as they walk out of storefronts. But there wasn’t a storefront where Campuzano got picked up – just a shuddered-up closed auto shop. Nevertheless, the state got a successful “under the influence of a controlled substance” conviction out of the case after the prosecutors invoked Heien V. North Carolina in an appellate court.
- Jose Gayton was pulled over in Illinois because police officers claimed to think his ball-shaped trailer hitch was illegal, given that it partially obstructed Gayton’s rear license plate. Though the court proceedings showed that not only did the stop contradict the spirit of the law (the hitch didn’t cover any vital information on the plate), it also contradicted the letter of the law (which said that such an obstruction would be attached to the plate itself like a plastic cover). But those errors were considered “reasonable” and, according to Heien ruling, the marijuana seized in the stop was used to charge Gayton with possession with intent to deliver.
The last example of Jose Gayton is maybe the most troubling because police claim that Gayton initially caught their attention because of his car: a purple Lincoln Mark V with large tires. So, Gayton was either racially or culturally profiled, then the police found the flimsiest pretext to stop him with and the court then encouraged other officers to do the same by allowing it.
Thousands, if not millions, of drivers go about their lives with trailer hitches or pine tree air fresheners. Virtually every driver is committing something that borders on what you might be able to conceive as an infraction of the law if you don’t know the law very well. Which means that police can pull over whoever they want basically whenever they want and a court will uphold it. Just when we need it, one more reason for the police not to take our basic civil rights into account and for us not to trust them.
Photo via Flickr user Nick Fisher