Searching Cars that Display a Plastic Jesus

by TChris

Did you leave your lawyer's business card on your car's dashboard next to a plastic Jesus? Don't exceed the speed limit, or the officer who pulls you over to write a ticket may want to search your car to determine whether you're a terrorist or drug dealer.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed with the United States Supreme Court, the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police argued that police should be allowed to use dogs to sniff any vehicle stopped for a traffic violation. Prohibiting the sniffing, they say, "threatens to undermine the government's war on terror, which relies on canines to sniff vehicles and luggage for narcotics and explosives at large gatherings or at transportation centers such as our nations' airports."

But why do the police have any reason to think that a guy who is stopped for driving 37 in a 35 mile-per-hour zone is a terrorist or drug dealer?

[M]any police agencies have developed anti-drug programs in which officers are trained to read the faces of drivers they pull over and to inspect their cars for such telltale signs of possible drug dealing as zippered plastic bags and lawyers' business cards, the police chiefs' brief explained. Police are trained to view even religious paraphernalia with a jaundiced eye because it is "sometimes used to divert suspicion," the brief noted.

The Supreme Court has already ruled that sniffing luggage in an airport doesn't constitute a search, but the question here isn't whether a search occurred, but whether a detention for a traffic violation was impermissibly lengthened so that officers could bring a dog to the scene after the driver refused to consent to a search of the car. Why did the officer want to search? Because the driver said he was driving from Las Vegas to Chicago, but was wearing a business suit.

If clothing, business cards, facial expressions, and religious paraphernalia can justify lengthening the time it takes to write a ticket so that a dog can sniff a car, there's no stopping point to the creative reasons officers will find to intrude on the privacy of drivers. Claiming that drug dogs are fighting the war against terrorism is a cheap attempt to win support for a policy that increases police power beyond the limits of the Fourth Amendment.

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