Driving while suspicious

A Yale study made the media rounds recently (NPR, USA Today), telling a story familiar to many drivers. Everybody does it, but you’re the one police see doing it.

Teachers asked to watch preschoolers for signs of bad behavior spent more time looking at black boys. A survey suggested they expected black boys to get into trouble. But all the kids in the study behaved the same.

Concidentally, this study came out the day after a friend told me teachers pay more attention to her daughter whose skin is paler than the rest of her class. And every time they notice something — missing her classmates’ misbehavior in the process — they spend even more time watching her.

You can start with everybody equal and end up with statistical “proof” that one group is a problem. Simply because you watch that group more, and have a better chance of catching one of them in the act, and each time you catch one you learn to watch them even more closely.

Moving down the highway your car’s skin is more important than your own. Maybe the cop thinks Monte Carlos are driven by drug dealers. Maybe he thinks passengers in a Focus tend to have active warrants. Maybe he knows you have a bag of pot because an illegal wiretap told him so, and he wants a legal search to launder the evidence.

We all know that traffic tickets are only distantly related to wrongdoing.

In Massachusetts the “keep right except to pass” law is almost never enforced against left lane blockers. Most tickets are for cutting the corner to get around stopped traffic before an exit ramp. The rest are for being out of the right lane when police need an excuse.

A judge tried to throw out one of these pretext stops, because police never make real stops for failure to keep right. The Supreme Judicial Court said police are allowed to do that. As long as you can’t prove the officer was racist, he can pick you and ignore the worse offenders.

Judges in American are obsessed with race at the expense of other injustice.

Boston police are being sued for using an exam that blacks pass at lower rates than whites. We know who took the test, who scored well, who was hired, and who was not. The facts led a judge to declare the test illegal.

We don’t do that for traffic stops partly because we don’t know about the drivers who didn’t get pulled over.

We know the vast majority of law breakers don’t get tickets. As a society we have rejected the notion of traffic laws that can be obeyed, even as we revolt against strictly enforcing the letter of the law.

We don’t have the sort of statistics that led the judge in Boston to issue an injunction to change an objective decision making process.

Maybe some day a judge will get sick of pretext stops and do something about them.

Given the politics of the modern judiciary, such a case would have to start with a claim of racial discrimination. But an annoyed judge has a lot of power. The remedy could benefit everybody.

What if a judge ordered police to use only objective criteria to decide who to pull over? If they pull over DeShawn for driving 68 mph, they have to pull over Emily too. Video enforced, by cameras watching police.

Imagine a world where drivers knew what the law was.

The opinions expressed in this post belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Motorists Association or the NMA Foundation. This content is for informational purposes and is not intended as legal advice. No representations are made regarding the accuracy of this post or the included links.

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