Texas traffic stop only a pretext

By Richard Orr

(Editor's note: This is an updated version of something that happened to Richard Orr and his late wife in November 1998 as they were on a trip from Texas to visit family and friends up north. As it turned out, it was the last visit Orr's wife was to take. She died in August 1999 of cancer. Richard Orr is a renowned journalist with a large Texas newspaper.)

You're minding the speed limit. All your lights are working. And you're properly buckled up. Suddenly, there's a police car with flashing lights behind you, and you wonder what in the world you've done wrong.

"You were drifting, sir," and Officer Friendly is just checking to see if you're okay. Welcome to the club. You've just been the victim of a growing desperation tactic in the losing war on drugs: the pretext stop.

It happened to my 73-year-old, cancer-stricken wife and me on a three-week trip from Texas to visit family and friends up north that we hadn't seen in years. It was dark and cold, and we were somewhere outside Springfield, Illinois being scrutinized by a state trooper who, though polite, seemed sure we were up to no good. The car was ours, no warrants hanging over our heads, and there was no evidence of drugs, alcohol or other nefarious activity.

Maybe I had drifted a time or two; it was windy, and the car tended to sway a bit because it was loaded down with three times more stuff than we'd wind up using. I certainly wasn't weaving from lane to lane or causing anyone to take evasive action. Follow anyone long enough, and you're going to find some minor infraction or other. Even cops.

He glanced around the interior and started to write a warning ticket when he made some remark about the car riding low. So I volunteered to let him look in the trunk where the first thing he wanted to see were the contents of a locked briefcase sitting atop a garment bag. He appeared to be a rookie, and I was beginning to get the picture.

He had spotted a low-riding car with Texas plates heading into Yankeeland during the height of the marijuana smuggling season. What's more, it was occupied by older people drug dealers sometimes employ as 'mules' to throw off the narcs. The guy was expecting to find bundles of dope or something.

Instead, all he found was a loaded .38 revolver. Not knowing what the gun laws are in other states, I start to get a bit nervous. He makes me stand in the headlights as he trains a spotlight on my wife - who had been asleep in the backseat - and calls for backup. Another car pulls up shortly, and I'm thinking they're bringing in a dog or are going to haul us off separately as the aging reincarnation of Bonnie and Clyde. It turns out to be the guy's supervisor in a suit and tie.

After consulting with his boss for what seems like hours, the trooper starts poking through the trunk and interior of the car as the supervisor questions me and asks my wife to "step from the vehicle, please." In what evolved into a shivering, hour-long ordeal, the trooper went through our car three times without finding any contraband. He even patted me down and went through her purse.

He appeared to be starting on a fourth round when my wife - a retired adult probation director - got indignant and told the supervisor that she had just been released from the hospital. She bluntly told of her remission from cancer, that she's going blind from macular degeneration and that we were on our way to see kids and grandkids for what could very well be the last time.

By the time she finished, tears were welling in his eyes and he told the trooper, "Let 'em go - now." Having once lived where there was no police protection, I have a profound respect for the job cops do. So I really didn't blame the trooper for pulling us over even if it was a pretext stop. At that point, he had no idea but that we might be smuggling drugs or guns.

Yet when three searches produce nothing, and he seems to get more agitated each time he comes up empty-handed, I began to worry that the trooper might plant something just to keep from looking foolish in front of his boss. The only thing they had against me was a gun that would have been legal if it hadn't been loaded. But since it was secured in the trunk, they let us go.

All's well that ends well, I guess. But I can't help but think how much time, money and talents are being wasted in a war that will fail just as Alcohol Prohibition did. Meanwhile, long mandatory sentences for non-violent users and laws allowing the confiscation of private property need to be scrapped. They deny due process and simply serve as an incentive for the state to go on fishing expeditions that turn up contraband a mere 5 percent of the time.

Ruling on a case originating from Iowa, the Supreme Court recently took a big step in the right direction. Not long after what my wife and I endured that night, the justices ruled unanimously that police have no right to search people or vehicles because of simple traffic violations - real or trumped up. In deference to officer safety, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote for the court that drivers and passengers could be ordered from cars. But even then, he said, that "does not by itself justify the often considerably greater intrusion attending a full field-type search."

I wrote the head of the Illinois State police and got a complaint form to fill out on the trooper. I wrote back saying my problem is with laws that allow "profiling" and pretext stops, not the cops who enforce them.

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