Lakeview Cops Offer Citizens Gift Certificates, Lawsuit Opportunities
Dec. 22, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — Everyone has experienced it. The flash of blue strobes behind you. Your hands tightening on the wheel when you see an officer behind you. Now you go through a checklist of things you may have done wrong. Were you speeding? Is your tag expired? Is there something you could be arrested for?
Or maybe, in fact, you’ve done nothing wrong at all:
“They’re going the speed limit and both of them are wearing their seat belts,” Hotchkiss noted as the car cruised serenely by his SUV. “That looks like a good one to pull over.”
Yes, Lakeview, Texas has embarked on a brilliant new program, according to The Baxter Bulletin:
“We are conducting a ‘Doing it Right Safe Driving Campaign. We look for people wearing their seat belts, obeying the speed limit and all the traffic laws,” Hotchkiss told them. “You were doing the right thing so we want to give you this Starbucks gift certificate.”
As one lucky recipient noted:
“I was surprised because I thought I was going the speed limit,” Cindy Davenport said of the traffic stop, laughing. “It’s a nice thought, but it was a little unnerving when you first get pulled over.”
You can certainly understand Ms. Davenport’s nervousness. She has no idea why she’s being pulled over. She could get a ticket, and have to miss a day of work going to court because her tail light was out. Or she could get arrested, and be held up to 48 hours before anyone even figures out if she’s done something wrong. Or she could end up, due to some misunderstanding, getting tased, pepper-sprayed, or shot.
These are all reasonable fears in a country where police officers are constitutionally entitled to arrest you for not wearing a seat belt, or any other minor offense.
What the officers in Lakeview seem to misunderstand is that they are taking a very special privilege we give them, the monopoly on force, and they are using it for what are essentially, very straightforward pranks.
See, you thought you were in serious trouble and were going to have your day ruined. But it turns out, the police officers were just bored. Then, they take the nervous relief on your face as a sign that everything is going according to plan.
It’s pretty clear that nobody at Lakeview thought this through:
“When the chief came to me with this idea, I thought it sounded great,” [the Mayor] said. “I sent an email to the council members asking if anyone had a problem with it and I never heard anything back negative so we went ahead.”
Let’s set aside for the moment that we generally pay for the police in the hope that they will make the area safer by preventing and solving crimes, not for the purpose of gift-card related hijinks.
What happens if the officer pulls you over to give you a gift certificate, and “smells the faint odor of an alcoholic beverage,” or “the overwhelming odor of marijuana.” Is he going to let you go on your way simply because he never had a valid reason to stop you?
Or, what happens if a motorist is a little bit rude? If the officer gives a gift certificate recipient a “lawful order” to put out her cigarette, is it still a crime in his eyes to say no?
However many chai lattés that gift certificate might buy you, it’s probably not worth the risk that the officer might find a whole new reason to detain you once you’re pulled over. Also, and this may come as a surprise to some readers, but the Supreme Court has never gotten around to granting a gift certificate exception to the 4th Amendment. The officer’s motive to stop you is irrelevant. All that matters is whether he had a good reason, which means that he had some reason to think you were committing a crime or posed a risk to the public.
Observing someone not committing a crime, it turns out, is not reasonable articulable suspicion that they are committing a crime.
So each of these gift certificates comes wrapped up neatly with a little constitutional violation and a potential lawsuit. And even though the intrusion might be minor, the Supreme Court held this year that the 4th Amendment does not contain a “no big deal” exception.
It’s quite possible that no one will decide to sue. The officer’s hearts are in the right place, they just don’t quite understand the way that their monopoly on force can make even the most lighthearted encounters coercive.
To the officers of Lakeview, if you want positive publicity, make good arrests. Perform good searches. In your off-time, work for charity.
But when the time comes to give local residents a gift, you don’t have to consult their wish list. Just leave them the hell alone.