by J.D. Tuccille
February 22, 1997

Get Outta the Car!

You! Yeah you, the one with the shifty eyes. Get outta the car.

That, in a nutshell, is what the Supreme Court said last week, in their decision in the case of Maryland v. Wilson. The details of that case were pretty straightforward: Cops pull over a speeding car that also happens to be missing license plates. At the side of the road, the cops notice furtive moves, sweating, and “nervousness” on the part of the front-seat passenger, Mr. Wilson, so they order him out of the vehicle. He complies, apparently forgetting the crack cocaine nestled in his lap, with predictable results.

If nothing else, everybody in the car was guilty of rank stupidity.

Normally, court decisions are supposed to be as narrowly drawn as possible. After reading the case, I’m willing to grant that maybe the cops had reasonable suspicion to invite Mr. Wilson out for a chat. A brain scan may have been in order, too. But the legal gurus in black dresses apparently felt claustrophobic, so they wrote some loose and breezy rules for the forces of law and order. From now on, whenever the police pull over a car in which you are riding as a passenger, they may order you out of the vehicle for ... well ... no reason at all.

No reason? Surely there has to be suspicion of something! Chucking evidence under a seat? Resemblance to a fugitive? Extraordinarily bad breath?

Nope! The court’s opinion, written by Chief Justice Rehnquist, states that:

... danger to an officer from a traffic stop is likely to be greater when there are passengers in addition to the driver in the stopped car. While there is not the same basis for ordering the passengers out of the car as there is for ordering the driver out, the additional intrusion on the passenger is minimal. We therefore hold that an officer making a traffic stop may order passengers to get out of the car pending completion of the stop.

The Chief Justice has noble intentions, no doubt. Most police officers ... well, many police officers don’t deserve to be used for target practice in the performance of their duties. Why not minimize the risk by letting cops order car passengers into clear view, out of reach of whatever lethal goodies may be stashed under the seat?

Why not? If police safety is the criterion for social interactions, we’re on our way to a massive transformation of American life. The dissent in the Wilson case estimates that the new rule may aid Maryland police in roughly 25 traffic stops per year — out of one million total traffic stops. With a ratio like that, the sky is the limit. Police safety? We can permit pat-down searches at an officer’s discretion. Or require pedestrians to present identity document upon command. (Your papers, please!) Take a look at a street map of your hometown and decide on the best street corners for metal detectors and X-ray machines. Be creative. I bet you’d catch loads of bad guys and make the world a safer place for cops.

But in a free society, rules are not set according to what’s safest for the boys in blue. People have rights — inalienable rights, meaning that they can’t be taken away for any reason. That means that sometimes the scumbags among us don’t get caught, or that they get away with an extra dose of mayhem. It also means that the more populous ranks of good people don’t have to drop their pants and bend over on the say-so of bored government employees taking out their marital difficulties on the first available civilians. And if the cops don’t like the rules of a free society? Too damned bad. We didn’t design the country for them.

But the majority on the Supreme Court doesn’t get it. You can see that clearly when Rehnquist adds insult to injury and says that “... intrusion on the passenger is minimal” when ordered out of the car. The idea that an innocent person — one not even suspected of a crime — being bossed around in any way by law enforcement officers constitutes a minimal intrusion can only seem reasonable to people who have completely lost touch with the libertarian roots of the United States. As Justice Stevens wrote in his dissent, “... countless citizens who cherish individual liberty and are offended, embarrassed, and sometimes provoked by arbitrary official commands may well consider the burden to be significant.”

Unfortunately, the Maryland v. Wilson decision didn’t just drop out of the sky into our laps as an unhappy aberration of American law. Uh uh. The courts for years have ruled that travel in an automobile automatically invalidates certain civil liberties protections “[b]ecause of the extensive regulation of motor vehicles and traffic” (as they put it in Cady v. Dombrowski). I’m still trying to find that particular exemption in my copy of the Bill of Rights, but the problem is clear: In a country that is increasingly burdened by government micromanagement, an argument that government intrusion justifies more government intrusion leads us down not a slippery slope, but one lined with teflon and greased with Pam.

So forget about avoiding sudden moves and suspicious behavior. If you want the cops to leave you alone, you’d better leave the car keys home and start pedaling.

Ah well, and so much for the power of argument. So back you go to Full Automatic or to my home page.

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Copyright (c) 1997 Jerome D. (Il Tooch) Tuccille. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Il Tooch is prohibited. Mess with me and I’ll use your polished skull as a beer mug.