22 years ago I was doing comedy at Russo’s in Grand Blanc, Michigan. Grand Blanc, not coincidentally, is French for “great white.” I was riding from the hotel to the show with Rodney Johnson, a black comic from Dallas, and we were pulled over the police. They asked for his license and registration, informing him that he had a burned out license plate light. The cop goes back to his car and, a few minutes later, we were being handcuffed and put in the back of the police car. Why? Because the license plate, supposedly, had come back as stolen.
We’re in the back of the car for a good 30-45 minutes while they searched his van. When they found nothing illegal in the van (I actually did have pot with me, but it was at the hotel), they came back, uncuffed us and said that it had all been a mistake. When they called in the license plate, the officer explained, the dispatcher must have gotten a couple letters or numbers in the wrong order or something. The van wasn’t stolen after all. So sorry, you’re free to go.
This is what is called a pretextual stop. They don’t pull someone over for a burned out license plate light for any reason other than to find an excuse to do a search of the vehicle. Rodney was pulled over for driving while black in a city as white as the back of an envelope. If you think this sort of thing isn’t absolutely routine, you’re living in a fantasy world.
Pretextual stops are something police are trained to do. They word their questions quite deliberately — “do you mind if we search the vehicle?” — in order to make you voluntarily give up your rights. If you say yes, they get to search it whether they have any reason to suspect that you’ve done anything wrong or not. If you say no, that become the pretext — thus the name of the technique — for claiming they had “reasonable suspicion” to search the vehicle.If you say no, they’ll tell you that they’re going to call for a K-9 unit, but that might take a while, maybe a couple hours. At that point, you are stuck. You can either allow them to do the search or sit there waiting. And if the dog “alerts” — which could be absolutely anything, with no information on what constitutes an alert — they now, according to the Supreme Court, have probable cause for a full vehicle search. They will often do this by having you come back to the police car and then the dog “alerts” while at the front of your vehicle, where you can’t see him.
I’ve cited study after study showing that alerts by drug-sniffing dogs are little more likely to be an accurate indicator of actual drugs in the vehicle than random chance, but the Supreme Court doesn’t care a bit. In both blind tests and in the field, the dogs are wrong the overwhelming majority of the time (always explained away with “well there must have been drugs in the vehicle at some point even though we can’t find them now”).
All of this is designed to get around that pesky constitution. It’s a pretext for pulling over anyone they want (and who do they want to pull over? Black and Latino people by an absolutely overwhelming margin even though white drivers are actually more likely to have contraband when their vehicles are searched) and search the vehicle without meeting the requirements of the 4th Amendment for doing a search. The Bill of Rights is no longer a useful safeguard against illegal searches and seizures, largely because the courts have utterly failed to enforce the 4th Amendment.