Nervous About Traffic Stops? I Am. You Should Be, Too
by John W. Whitehead
“Quit resisting.”—Cops yell at compliant young man who was thrown to the ground, beaten, arrested and hospitalized for severe injuries to his face and arm, allegedly in retaliation for “resisting arrest” by driving to a safe, well-lit area before submitting to a traffic stop for a broken tail light
You’re driving along and you see a pair of flashing blue lights in your rearview mirror. Whether or not you’ve done anything wrong, you get a sinking feeling in your stomach. You’ve read enough news stories, seen enough headlines, and lived in the American police state long enough to be anxious about any encounter with a cop that takes place on the side of the road.
For better or worse, from the moment you’re pulled over, you’re at the mercy of law enforcement officers who have almost absolute discretion to decide who is a threat, what constitutes resistance, and how harshly they can deal with the citizens they were appointed to “serve and protect.”
This is what I call “blank check policing,” in which the police get to call all of the shots. So if you’re nervous about traffic stops, you have every reason to be.
Trying to predict the outcome of any encounter with the police is a bit like playing Russian roulette: most of the time you will emerge relatively unscathed, although decidedly poorer and less secure about your rights, but there’s always the chance that an encounter will turn deadly.
For instance, it was just a year ago, in the early morning hours of Dec. 1, 2016, when Gregory Tucker, a young African-American man, was pulled over by Louisiana police for a broken taillight. Because he did not feel safe stopping immediately, Tucker drove calmly and slowly to a safe, well-lit area a few minutes away before stopping in front of his cousin’s house.
That’s when what should have been a routine traffic stop became yet another example of police brutality in America and another reason why Americans are justified in their fear of cops.
According to the lawsuit that was just filed in federal court by The Rutherford Institute, police ordered Tucker out of his vehicle, and after he had stepped out, immediately placed him under arrest for “resisting” (in this case, not immediately stopping) and searched his person and his vehicle. Tucker was then ordered to move to the front of the police vehicle and place his hands on its hood.
Two more police officers arrived on the scene, walked up behind Tucker, and grabbed his arms to restrain and handcuffed him.
Then the fourth police officer arrived on the scene. According to police dash cam footage, Tucker was thrown to the ground and punched numerous times in the head and body. The police also yelled repeatedly at Tucker to “quit resisting.” Tucker, bleeding with injuries to his face, head and arm, was then placed into the back of a police vehicle and EMTs were called to treat him. He was eventually taken to the hospital for severe injuries to his face and arm.
Mind you, this young man complied with police. He just didn’t do it fast enough to suit their purposes.
This young man submitted to police. He didn’t challenge police authority when they frisked him, searched his car, handcuffed him, and beat him to a pulp.
If this young man is “guilty” of anything, he’s guilty of ticking off the cops by being cautious, concerned for his safety, and all too aware of the dangers faced by young black men during encounters with the police.
Frankly, you don’t even have to be young or black or a man to fear for your life during an encounter with the police. Just consider the growing numbers of unarmed people are who being shot and killed just for standing a certain way, or moving a certain way, or holding something—anything—that police could misinterpret to be a gun, or igniting some trigger-centric fear in a police officer’s mind that has nothing to do with an actual threat to their safety.
At a time when police can do no wrong—at least in the eyes of the courts, police unions and politicians dependent on their votes—and a “fear” for officer safety is used to justify all manner of police misconduct, “we the people” are at a severe disadvantage.
Add a traffic stop to the mix, and that disadvantage increases dramatically.
According to the Justice Department, the most common reason for a citizen to come into contact with the police is being a driver in a traffic stop.
On average, one in 10 Americans gets pulled over by police.
Black drivers are 31 percent more likely to be pulled over than white drivers, or about 23 percent more likely than Hispanic drivers. As the Washington Post concludes, “‘Driving while black’ is, indeed, a measurable phenomenon.”
Indeed, police officers have been given free range to pull anyone over for a variety of reasons.
This free-handed approach to traffic stops has resulted in drivers being stopped for windows that are too heavily tinted, for driving too fast, driving too slow, failing to maintain speed, following too closely, improper lane changes, distracted driving, screeching a car’s tires, and leaving a parked car door open for too long.
Motorists can also be stopped by police for driving near a bar or on a road that has large amounts of drunk driving, driving a certain make of car (Mercedes, Grand Prix and Hummers are among the most ticketed vehicles), having anything dangling from the rearview mirror (air fresheners, handicap parking permits, troll transponders or rosaries), and displaying pro-police bumper stickers.
Incredibly, a federal appeals court actually ruled unanimously in 2014 that acne scars and driving with a stiff upright posture are reasonable grounds for being pulled over. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that driving a vehicle that has a couple air fresheners, rosaries and pro-police bumper stickers at 2 MPH over the speed limit is suspicious, meriting a traffic stop.
Equally appalling, in Heien v. North Carolina, the U.S. Supreme Court—which has largely paved the way for the police and other government agents to probe, poke, pinch, taser, search, seize, strip and generally manhandle anyone they see fit in almost any circumstance—allowed police officers to stop drivers who appear nervous, provided they provide a palatable pretext for doing so.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the lone objector in the case. Dissenting in Heien, Sotomayor warned, “Giving officers license to effect seizures so long as they can attach to their reasonable view of the facts some reasonable legal interpretation (or misinterpretation) that suggests a law has been violated significantly expands this authority... One wonders how a citizen seeking to be law-abiding and to structure his or her behavior to avoid these invasive, frightening, and humiliating encounters could do so.”
In other words, drivers beware.
Traffic stops aren’t just dangerous. They can be downright deadly.
If you’re starting to feel somewhat overwhelmed, intimidated and fearful for your life and the lives of your loved ones, you should be.
You should be very afraid.