Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Unreasonable Search In This Free Country

Originally published in the Bristol Press, Middletown Press and New Britain Herald, December 7, 2008


Click it or ticket. And pity my old junior high civics teacher, for if he’s still in the education biz he’s had to write all-new lesson plans. The ones he used to teach my class about the Constitution and its amendments are obsolete.

For example: When he explained the prohibitions against “unreasonable searches and seizures” without “probable cause” (segue here into lesson about search warrants), he led a class discussion in which we mentioned the police checkpoints we saw on old movies showcasing the unpleasantness of life under the Nazis or Soviets.

But not in America. This is a Free Country — you could hear my teacher pronounce the capital letters, when he said that — and one benefit of living in a Free Country is this: Unless government has good reason to suspect you, personally, of wrongdoing, they have to leave you alone. And “You’re traveling on a public thoroughfare” doesn’t count as probable cause.

Civics teachers can’t say that anymore. And I’m dating myself by telling you this story; my classes obviously took place before 1990, when the Supreme Court decided that American police could hold checkpoints so long as the cops agreed to first say “We’re looking for drunken drivers” (though they can still keep, rather than toss back, any other fish swept up in their net).

Americans who live within 100 miles of an international border have been driving through checkpoints since 1976, when the Supreme Court allowed police to have them so long as cops agreed to first say “We’re looking for illegal immigrants.” This Fourth Amendment rollback failed to result in a situation where Americans 33 years later could think, “Wow, sure is nice living in a country where illegal immigration’s not a problem,” but the courts still continued adding to the list of acceptable checkpoint excuses. Nowadays, even pippy-poo excuses such as “We’re looking for unbuckled seat belts” are justification for cops to ignore the probable-cause clause.

And brag about it on billboards and TV. Click it or Ticket. Over the Limit, Under Arrest.

As a frequent driver who lives in Connecticut, I’ve lost track of how many checkpoint encounters I’ve had the past five years. Even when the cops see I’m all sober and buckled up, they still grill me about what I’m doing and where I’m going, since driving at rush hour, or 8 p.m. on a Friday, now qualifies as probable cause.

Check out this excerpt from a recent news story about a seat belt checkpoint in the little town of Plainville: “The police department concluded the two-week national Click It or Ticket Campaign [and] conducted 36 safety checkpoints ... which resulted in 277 enforcement actions.”

No mention of how many hundreds or thousands of drivers were affected when police sealed off the roads and let traffic back up while everybody waited their turn to prove they’re behaving themselves. But the cops admitted writing 230 tickets for seat-belt irregularities and another 47 for violations such as using a cell phone or lacking proof of insurance.

What would my old civics teacher have said, had my gawky young adolescent self raised her hand and told him, “When I grow up, I’ll live in a country where police brag about traffic checkpoints where they snagged some people with outdated registration paperwork. No, the cops won’t have Russian or German accents; I’ll still live in America”?

Probably sent me to the principal’s office for being a smartass.