Wednesday, June 14, 2017

How Drug Laws Degrade Respect for the Rule of Law

Sometimes I see a traffic stop in which several police cars have pulled over a single vehicle. The driver and passengers are standing by the side of the road, and the police are searching the vehicle. The driver and passengers are almost always young, male, and black.

My thoughts are always, "Jeez, they're looking to bust some poor kid for drugs." I'm guessing if they searched a lot of similar vehicles, they could occasionally find a joint or a dime bag and make a few arrests. Once in a while they'd turn up a "distribution" quantity of illegal drugs. I think these kinds of traffic stops are, for lack of a better term, complete bullshit. It is not the proper role of government to harass innocent motorists in search of this kind of so-called contraband.

But perhaps this is completely unfair. Maybe the police know the individuals in the vehicle. Maybe they were looking for one of them specifically in order to question them about a recent crime. Maybe the vehicle, or one closely matching its description, was spotted at the scene of a crime. (A real crime.) Maybe a similar vehicle was recently spotted speeding away from the scene of a murder, and the police are legitimately searching for the murder weapon. 

It could be that the true explanation of the traffic stop is some combination of the legitimate policing functions described in the above paragraph. And yet my mind always jumps to "They're looking to bust some poor black kids for a bullshit drug charge." I don't think that my gut reaction is terribly unfair, either, because the police really do harass a lot of innocent people in the enterprise of drug law enforcement.  

So here I am. I'm a pretty average guy. An actuary. My job is literally to compute averages. Mid 30s. Never been arrested or had any trouble with the authorities. And yet when I see a fairly routine police activity, I'm quietly cursing them and assuming they are up to no good, because so often they are up to no good. I'm not the only one who feels this way, either. I don't instinctively react this way to the sight of law enforcement. There are many law enforcement folks at the martial arts club I am in, and I like all of them personally. I think, "Thank goodness these folks are learning how to physically handle another human being, so they don't one day unnecessarily resort to deadly force. I will coach them the best I can so they have the confidence to handle a bad situation without escalating." When I see a police car patrolling my neighborhood, I'm glad they're there. If I saw one pulling over and ticketing one of the young morons who speeds through my neighborhood, I'd quietly cheer.

A vehicle search is very different from a ticket, though. When I see a search, I have two thoughts at once: "That cop had better know for certain that that kid did something wrong" and "That's rarely the case." Feel free to write me off as being completely unfair, but just understand that this perception exists. It's a pretty common attitude, even among "upstanding taxpayers." My calling attention to it doesn't change anything. I should be able to see police officers doing their job and not have to second-guess their motives. If cops only harassed suspected murderers, thieves, batterers, and rapists, I could rest easy. But my knowledge of the injustices of drug policing forces me to do this kind of second-guessing. I think that for a police force to function properly, it needs to command the respect of the public it supposedly serves. Drug enforcement precludes them from earning that respect. 

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