Sign up FAST! Login

Police and privacy: Driving while nervous | The Economist

Police and privacy Driving while nervous The Economist


On the morning of April 29, 2009, Sergeant Matt Darisse of the Surry County Sheriff’s Department sat in his patrol car near Dobson, North Carolina, observing north-bound traffic on Interstate 77. Shortly before 8 a.m., a Ford Escort passed by. Darisse thought the driver looked “very stiff and nervous,” so he pulled onto the interstate and began following the Escort. A few miles down the road, the Escort braked as it approached a slower vehicle, but only the left brake light came on. Noting the faulty right brake light, Darisse activated his vehicle’s lights and pulled the Escort over.

Peering into the Escort and puzzling over a man awkwardly splayed out in the back seat, Mr Darisse secured Mr Heien’s assent to search the car. Mr Darisse then found a stash of cocaine in a duffle bag and arrested Mr Heien on attempted drug trafficking charges. But as it happens, North Carolina law requires cars to have only one working brake light, so Mr Darisse’s original decision to stop the suspiciously steered Escort was based on a legal misapprehension. The issue in Heien is whether this mistake makes the stop “unreasonable” and therefore tosses out the evidence seized on the shoulder of Interstate 77.

In reaching the conclusion that Mr Darisse was in error but not unreasonably so, the Court majority clarifies that “[t]o be reasonable is not to be perfect, and so the Fourth Amendment allows for some mistakes on the part of government officials, giving them ‘fair leeway for enforcing the law in the community’s protection.’” Sounds reasonable. But how much leeway is “fair”? How error-prone can an officer be before his bungled policing crosses the line? This is where the majority’s reasoning gets uncomfortably spongy: “The limit is that ‘the mistakes must be those of reasonable men.’ "

This is not so helpful. It smacks of dark satire in the context of episodes of deadly policing that have sparked demonstrations in Ferguson, New York and other American cities in recent weeks. Justice Sotomayor does not directly refer to these events in her dissent, but she alludes to the exact concerns underlying the protests (emphasis added):

Stashed in: Privacy does not exist.

To save this post, select a stash from drop-down menu or type in a new one:

Another thing to worry about. 

You May Also Like: