Officials have a lot to gain from unconstitutional traffic stops, but not much to lose

Mario Rosales was fined by police in Alexandria, Louisiana for failing to signal. But Mario was sure he had signaled. He visited businesses near the intersection where he had been stopped and asked if they had security footage showing the stop. One of them had a camera pointing in the right direction and it showed Mario was right.

This became perfectly clear weeks later when police released the dash and bodycam footage from the stop. Mario’s bright red Mustang clearly had the left turn signal on. The rest of the footage showed why officers came up with a reason to drag Mario and his girlfriend over: They’re fishing for bigger crimes.

It was clear from the start that the stop was not a minor traffic violation. Mario was asked to leave the car. He was then searched, had to empty his pockets and asked a series of questions about illegal drugs. Mario was read his Miranda rights, but when he politely answered her questions about his residency, he received additional subpoenas for not registering his car quickly enough after moving from New Mexico.

The video showed the two officers audibly expressing their disappointment after the dispatch told them there were no warrants for Mario’s arrest and therefore had no reason to search his car or let the dog snoop around in the back seat of the squad car .

Instead, all of his quotes were dropped after Mario received the dash and bodycam footage. Now the Alexandria police and officers are the culprits in a civil rights lawsuit filed by Mario and the Institute for Justice.

It may not be everyday for officers to be caught in the act of making a phony traffic stop, but there is no doubt that many traffic stops are carried out in the hope that they will lead to more serious charges or a payday for the police.

The problem is nationwide. In South Carolina, for example, law enforcement agencies across the state participate in Operation Rolling Thunder annually. In 2022, the Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office reported that it had seized nearly $1 million in searches of 144 vehicles. Many of the offenses officers use to stop drivers are minor or subjective. More than 350 cars were pulled over for improper lane changing, following closely or violating equipment.

In one instance, lawmakers stopped at a charter bus carrying students from Shaw University, a historically black college. Body cam footage from the bus stop shows the bus driver being pressured into allowing MPs to search all passengers’ luggage without their consent. Deputies then search bags for prescription drugs and personal belongings. No illegal items were found and the driver was only warned for ignoring the lane.

Stopping drivers for minor infractions and then looking for more subpoenas to dish out can be very profitable for law enforcement. This was the practice in the small town of Brookside, Alabama, for several years. Stops for burned-out license plate lights became wide-ranging investigations that routinely ended with cars being towed and drivers arrested.

Like Mario, Michelle Moffat was allegedly stopped for signal failure. Due to a government database problem, the officer insisted that Michelle did not own her vehicle and did not have insurance. The officer would not accept her proof of ownership or insurance and towed the car away, leaving her, her daughter and her young grandson on the side of the road at night.

Stops like this have been very profitable for the city. Whether drivers challenged their subpoenas or not, they had to pay the city hundreds of dollars to get their car out of impoundment. The money was used to increase the police force tenfold and buy expensive toys. Police in a city of 1,200 with no serious crime problems had night vision goggles, high-powered rifles, and even a “tank” leased from the Department of Defense.

Supreme Court precedent allows officials to pursue drivers until they find a violation, but it is clearly unconstitutional for officials to fabricate violations because they feel a driver is up to no good. Precedent also prohibits officers from extending traffic stops to ask about crimes unrelated to the offense they stopped someone for, but there is very little risk and great potential reward for officers who do in violation of the Constitution in this way.

Mario didn’t end up in the back seat of a squad car and his subpoenas were dropped, but he is suing to defend his rights and protect others from future violations of their rights. The Fourth Amendment is designed to protect Americans from criminal investigations into fishing trips. If the courts fail to protect these rights, trawl closures will only increase, and more drivers will be stopped at the side of the road for no reason whatsoever.

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