Police Can’t Just Make Up Reasons for Pulling People Over
Violating drivers traffic laws risk penalty. But Innocent failed to protect Mario Rosales when a police SUV stopped behind him. Ford Mustang ran a red light on June 17, 2022, in Alexandria, Louisiana.
Mario signaled and turned left on the green light. He is not speeding, littering, swerving out of his lane, or driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. He did nothing illegal.
So did his girlfriend, Gracie Lasyone, in the passenger seat.
The Mustang is equally clean. It has current tags, working equipment and is not related to any criminal investigation. The only thing conspicuous about the car was its red color and foreign license plate, from New Mexico.
The officers had no good reason to initiate a traffic stop. However, they flashed the emergency lights before the Mustang crossed the intersection. Dash cam and body camera videotapes shows that Mario was quick to stop, speaking in a respectful tone and obeying every command of the police. So is Gracie.
Nothing helps. Given that Mario had failed to activate his flash, despite clear video evidence to the contrary, the officers ordered Mario and Gracie to get out of the car. Officers then searched Mario, took his phone, put it in the cockpit of a police car, forced him to empty his pockets, and interrogated him for 20 minutes about his personal life.
They also interrogated Gracie. When she asked – twice – if she could record the encounter on her phone, they refused to allow it. In the end, they cited Mario for three alleged violations for which the city was eventually dropped.
“Regardless of the motivation, the practice is the same from coast to coast. The police don’t wait for a good reason to stop the driver; they stop the driver to find a reason.“
The entire encounter was bogus, although the police assured that everything they did was according to the books. A true officer calls himself a “constitutionalist”, while violating the Constitution in many ways.
Instead of accepting the abuse, Mario and Gracie fought back with a civil rights lawsuit. Our public interest law firm, the Institute of Justice, represents them.
The lawsuit highlights a nationwide problem. Cases in Georgia, Nevada, Oklahoma State, Texas, Wyomingand other places show a similar pattern. The police used the pretext to stop the traffic, then cavalierly disregarded the constitutional rights of the driver.
Sometimes the goal is fines and fees. Dozens of Louisiana municipalities receive more than a half their revenue from citations. A village near Alexandria relies on traffic enforcement for 93% of the budget.
Other times, the goal is revenue through a process called civil forfeiture, which allows the government to take and hold property without proving wrongdoing in criminal court. Many law enforcement agencies make money without arresting or prosecuting anyone. The process of working with efficient like factory in Detroit.
With Mario and Gracie, the officers seem to expect the pair to be big criminals. “There’s more to this than eye-catching,” said one officer. He later expressed disappointment when dispatch informed officers that Mario and Gracie had no criminal record.
Regardless of the motivation, the practice is the same from coast to coast. The police don’t wait for a good reason to stop the driver; they stop the driver to find a reason.
The constitution forbids this police regime. The Fourth Amendment requires officers to have a reasonable suspicion that the driver did something wrong. prior to detain them. Officers cannot detain someone to find a crime.
Even if officers have a good reason to stop, they cannot unnecessarily prolong the interaction while looking for additional violations. In Alexandria and elsewhere, however, officials and their divisions often escaped the consequences when they flouted the Constitution.
One reason is simple economics. Holding the government accountable for rights violations is costly. It makes no financial sense to sue an agency unless the agency’s employees cause serious harm. However, two problems arise when ordinary violations go unpunished.
First, officers can get used to ignoring the Constitution. Without fear of reprisal, individual freedom disappears. Second, if rights are only exercised when there are serious violations by the government, then no one is safe from unreasonable searches and confiscations—which often start with minor inconveniences.
Mario and Gracie drove away from their police encounter, but the others left in the back of a police car, ambulance, or hearse. No one has to wait for the worst to happen before insisting on responsibility.
If drivers must obey traffic laws, then police must obey the Constitution.
Marie Miller is an attorney and Daryl James is a writer at the Institute of Justice in Arlington, Va.