Sunday, April 17, 2005

The Fourth Amendment

A couple of days ago I wrote about the First Amendment in relation to the right to express extremist, unpopular views. An incident last week involving a friend and a local police force has inspired me to write about the Fourth Amendment today. First, the incident. The said friend, who is of the female persuasion, was leaving school. Our high school is located in a relatively affluent neighborhood; "middle-middle class." Mainly mid-level white collar and upper-level blue collar workers. As you leave school, there is a pretty steep grade of hill that you have to go down. My friend was traveling in excess of the posted speed limit (by about 10 mph) and was nailed by a Bellevue PD officer who was running a speed trap. My friend knew she was caught, so she pulled onto a side street to wait for the officer. Here's where things get interesting. The officer does the standard "meet and greet" of license and registration, did you know how fast you were going/the posted speed limit, etc. Then the officer asks her why she is so nervous and states that it is making him nervous. My friend replied that she really couldn't afford a ticket. The officer then asks her if she has anything illegal in the car and tells her to remain in the car until he tells her she can leave. She sits there for a good 15 minutes, until another BPD cruiser pulls behind her. The officer comes back and asks her to step out of the car. He then tells her that they've had a rise of teenagers manufacturing and transporting meth and asks her if she's ever done any illegal substances. She responded, truthfully, in the negative. He then tells her (note that he tells her; it was a command, not a question) that they are going to need to search her person and her car because "she has been acting really suspicious." The officers then proceeded to make her lift up her shirt to prove that she didn't have any pockets (otherwise I imagine they would have given her a pat-down). After this they proceeded to tear her car apart searching through it, trunk included. After they didn't find anything, the cop tells her that they needed to do it "because you were acting very suspicious so we needed to check it out." Then the cops drive off, leaving my friend over 30 minutes late for her job.

So, were her rights violated? Well, the Fourth Amendment states that "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated...but upon probable cause." The Fourth Amendment is like the Eighth, in that the language used is very ambiguous. After all, what is "unreasonable" or "cruel and unusual"? The courts have determined that "unreasonable," as applied to a car search following a routine traffic stop, is limited to searched of things "in plain view" and only if the officers have "reasonable probable cause." "In plan view" has since been modified to include the entire car, including the trunk, but no opaque containers contained in the car. Of course, none of this applies if the owner of the car has given consent to the search, which is appears that, at least from a legal standpoint, that my friend did. She said "okay" after the officer told her that he needed to search her car. The officer also appears to have his probable cause locked in, albeit a relatively flimsy one; I'm not sure how kindly the courts would take to an officer searching someone because she was acting "suspicious," but then be unable to back that up with any hard evidence.

Of course, this is all really beside the point. After all, even if my friend files a complaint or even takes the BPD to court, what's the best that could happen? The officer is reprimanded, and maybe the BPD has to pay her some money; even this result is unlikely because after all, as far as anyone is concerned she is just a trouble-making teenager. Which raises the question of profiling. We hear a lot about stopped for driving while black; we don't hear as much for being stopped for driving while teenager. I'm willing to submit that this is because most teenagers are pulled over for a legitimate reason: speeding, or some other sort of traffic violation. However, after this initial offense, the officers take things too far and conduct a borderline illegal search of the teenager's car. What teenager is going to stand up for their constitutional rights and cause a problem for the police? I would, but I'm pretty sure that I am the exception to the rule. Besides, we're just teenagers, and we all know all teenagers are just waiting for the opportunity to become a druggie; we have to stop them before it happens. The BPD evidently believes this; every traffic stop in Bellevue that I've seen in the past 2-3 weeks involving a teenager seems to have resulted in a full blown car search.

Then there is the even larger issue: should the police have a right to search our cars after a routine traffic stop? I submit that they should, with severe limitations. After all, as citizens we have entered into a contract with the government: we agree to give the government certain powers to improve life for everyone (a military, foreign relations, municipal services, infrastructure, etc.); in exchange, the government agrees (in theory) to butt out of our lives. I believe that the only time our cars should be searched during a routine traffic stop is if there is hard physical evidence of a crime: the car and/or occupants match the description from a prior crime, the car smells of fresh marijuana smoke, the occupants appear to be intoxicated and/or smell of alcohol, etc. Outside of this, there should be no searches. "She was acting really suspicious" should be not a legitimate cause for searches. I find it disgraceful that officers who have sworn to uphold and protect the law are engaging in such activity.