[Non-Fiction] Homeland Security and “traffic stop extremism”

The Department of Homeland Security released a report on right wing extremism in the United States, by American citizens.

In this short post, I’ll talk about why I believe DHS’ report seems shortsighted, and why concerns about civil liberties during routine police encounters are warranted.

CNN has a breakdown here. The TLDR version:

Some federal and local law enforcement groups view the domestic terror threat from sovereign citizen groups as equal to — and in some cases greater than — the threat from foreign Islamic terror groups, such as ISIS, that garner more public attention.​..

The government says these are extremists who believe that they can ignore laws and that their individual rights are under attack in routine daily instances such as a traffic stop or being required to obey a court order.

Keyboard warriors were out and about. The headline was spun as:

  • “Cue up another conservative tantrum: DHS issues warning about threat from right-wing terrorists.”
    • The DHS essentially disbanded its team devoted to domestic non-Islamic terrorism in early 2009, after conservative lawmakers and media figures complained that a similar report had targeted all conservatives and military veterans as potential terrorists.The nonprofit group said the reaction to that earlier report on right-wing extremism had left the U.S. vulnerable to domestic attacks.
  • “Obama Administration Finally Finds ‘Terrorists’ It Can Hate — You
    • Pretty scary, huh kids? Um… not so much. Upon closer inspection, these deadly terrorists are just your basic idiots who don’t like getting stopped by cops:

Let’s try to get beyond the headline and the immediate partisan reaction, shall we?

“Routine” interactions with police are, in fact, quite unpredictable. It’s been a problem for years in minority communities, but now seems commonplace.

David Eckert was the victim of police abuse in a routine traffic stop in 2013. The offense (a rolling stop) and what happened next (hours of molestation by doctors) was epically foul:

Police thought David Eckert had drugs hidden in his anal cavity because “he was clenching his buttocks” after cops pulled him over in January 2013 when he didn’t come to a complete halt at a stop sign…

Despite the thorough search — which included two X-rays, three enemas and a surgical colonoscopy — cops found nothing…

Eckert was kept against his will for 14 hours as police and the doctors forced him to undergo the painful and embarrassing, treatments.

“This is like something out of a science fiction movie — anal probing by government officials and public employees,” Eckert’s attorney, Shannon Kennedy, said shortly after the suit was filed in November.

Among the violations was the fact that the search warrant for the exams was valid only in Luna County, but he was taken to Grant County after emergency room doctors first refused to do the exams on ethical grounds. He was also denied the right to make a phone call from the police station.

The resulting settlement came to over a million dollars, and doesn’t include further settlements that might take place.

A routine interaction with police escalated to the stratosphere of inhumane offenses within a couple of hours.

Maybe you’re not convinced this is worrying. Let’s look at other cases, like the case of a woman held in detention over her lack of papers:

“They put me in the police car, never told me why they were taking me or where I was going, which really worried me because I didn’t know what would happen to my children — the five days I spent detained were a nightmare for me,” Cortes says in a written statement.

Cortes, still handcuffed, was driven 13 miles away from the traffic stop to a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol office in Casa Grande. When they arrived at the office, Lakosky wrote Cortes a traffic citation for her windshield, lack of license, and failure to provide proof of insurance. Then he left the office and Cortes was transferred to federal immigration officers who kept her in detention for the next five days.  In Lakosky’s narrative of the report on the incident, he wrote that Cortes was “cited and released.” He made no mention of Cortes being arrested, handcuffed, transported, and detained for five days.

The lawsuit claims that Lakosky and Stoltz violated Cortes’ Fourth amendment right against unreasonable seizure. Cortes’ lawyers argue that “at no time during the stop did these Defendants have either probable cause or reasonable suspicion that Ms. Cortes was involved in criminal activity and at no time was Ms. Cortes told that she was under arrest for any reason. At no time during the stop did Ms. Cortes believe that she was free to leave the scene”

I could go on: lethal force used against rock throwers. The unarmed man shot on his front porch in Fairfax Virginia.

Clearly, unconstitutional practices are used against the individuals in question.

Are these outliers? How many outliers make a trend? I’m going to say, for the sake of argument, that there is a trend. Even if you don’t agree with a trend, could there be a perception of a trend coloring people’s interactions with police? What protections do people really have?

So let me return to the DHS opinion.

DHS is saying that some “right wing” individuals see routine traffic stops as violation of their rights. Is this the case, or is it the case that these “right wing” individuals see traffic stops as being more and more invasive? Like, bodily invasive?

The legal encyclopedia NOLO has an entire section on routine traffic stops and goes into great detail about what is not allowed. Instead of quoting that, I want to run this by the reader: traffic stops are constitutionally problematic. The Supreme Court cannot even agree on what is and is not a reasonable expectation to privacy or constitutionality at a stop.

This, to me, is not a matter of conservative versus liberal, or Democrat and Republican. Traffic stops, and indeed all interactions with police, have become terrifying ordeals for both parties. Cops and the people they are sworn to protect are both terrified of one another.

The next question I ask, then, is here does the burden of responsibility lie when it comes to a traffic stop?

Turns out that knowledge of the law isn’t even necessary for police to do their job. The Supreme Court recently ruled that police officers do not need to possess knowledge of the law in order to carry out procedures as they see fit. This explains those traffic stop problems that NOLO points to. A summary:

He dismissed the refrain “ignorance of the law is no excuse” as a maxim with “rhetorical appeal,” but not worthy of the court’s serious consideration, at least not when it comes to investigatory stops. “[J]ust because mistakes of law cannot justify either the imposition or the avoidance of criminal liability, it does not follow that they cannot justify an investigatory stop,” he writes.

In sum: should “right wing” individuals lash out at police? No, they shouldn’t. But what can any individual do when the relationship between law enforcement and the public is so toxic? The people that are being labeled terrorists are other Americans, people that pay taxes, have license plates, and conduct themselves in everyday American life. Maybe, just maybe, the proliferation of police violence has made people nervous. Maybe they are reacting, albeit not well, to a very real problem?

I’ll leave the reader off with a reminder of how bad interactions between police and the public are becoming. This is NPR’s story “For Students In Ohio, A Crib Sheet For Interacting With Police“. Here’s the main theme of the “cheat sheet” they created for dealing with police.

“The best way to avoid conflict is to not provoke the officer while having a discussion about law enforcement matters.”

“Provoke” is an interesting word.

I got this from a web presentation on how to deal with rabid animals…

Rabid animals...?

Rabid animals…?

Most people want peace. It’s the circumstance under which human flourishing takes place. “Peace, easy taxes, and tolerable administration of justice” was Adam Smith’s guide to a smoothly running society.

Do we have that? And if we don’t, are these “right wing” folks extremists, or just reactionaries?

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