Police

From Ticketing President Grant to "Do you have it up your ass?": A short history of the traffic stop

How automobiles grew the power and reach of the police throughout America.

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Nighttime traffic stop in NC
Ildar Sagdejev, Wikimedia

Today, everyone understands the concept of "driving while black," or the fear that African Americans are more likely to get pulled over for minor traffic and vehicle violations, especially when they are driving in areas that are wealthy and heavily white or places that are predominantly poor and that depend on traffic fines for revenue. While black and white drivers are pulled over at similar rates for clear traffic violations, black are five times more likely to be pulled over and searched in "investigatory stops."

Which puts a fine irony on the "first known traffic stop of any note" in the United States. The year was 1872, the vehicle was a horse-drawn carriage, the city was Washington, D.C., and the offenders was President Ulysses S. Grant. Even more amazingly, the officer was William West, an African American. From the Washington Star's account, as quoted in The New York Observer:

"I cautioned you yesterday, Mr. President," answered the policeman, "about fast driving, and you said, sir, that it would not occur again."

"Did I?" mused Grant, still with a quizzical smile on his features. "Well, I suppose I forgot it, and that I might have been going a little bit too fast this evening: but hang it officer, these animals of mine are thoroughbreds, and there is no holding them."

"I am very sorry, Mr. President to have to do it, for you are the chief of the nation, and I am but a policeman. But duty is duty, sir, and I will have to place you under arrest," West replied.

"All right," cried Grant, "where do you wish me to go with you?"

Grant ended up forking over a $20 fine. The Observer story, written by Josh Keefe, goes on to explore how the automobile, that symbol of freedom and autonomy, has also become a major tool of surveillance and reprimand. The car, after all, gave rise to the traffic stop, the most common way in which people interact with cops:

The traffic stop, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, is "the most common reason for contact with the police." The agency estimated that in 2011, "42 percent of face-to-face contacts that U.S. residents had with police" were traffic stops. The side-of-the-road summit has a long history as a flash point in battles over the use of police power. Rodney King's beating occurred after a traffic stop. The Watts riots of 1968 erupted after a confrontation at a traffic stop. So did the 1967 Newark riots.

"Cars are completely transformative," said Sarah Seo, an associate professor at Iowa Law School and author of a recent paper on automobiles and policing in the Yale Law Journal. "The massive growth of police departments really happens after the mass production of automobiles," she continued….

EC Middleton & Co., Wikimedia

And of course, the rise of the traffic stop also gave rise to the traffic ticket.

With the traffic ticket, every traffic stop turned into a money-making opportunity.

"Every little town with a main road running through it loved [the automobile], because they thought 'oh we can increase our revenue.'" explained Cotten Seiler, author of Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America. Policing the roads was "always about more than public safety." Seiler said. "It was about the exercise of the various types of power: local power, racial power and also about making money."

It's a fascinating little story, well-written and full of odd historical tidbits such as the opening anecdote about Grant and Officer West. Given the large role traffic stops (and their cousin, automated traffic tickets via red-light cameras) have played in increasing tensions between minorities and police over the past few years, it's well worth a read.

Related video about the ultimate traffic-stop nightmare: "Do you have it up your ass?: Drug warriors in New Mexico go too far." 

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  1. “I am very sorry, Mr. President to have to do it, for you are the chief of the nation, and I am but a policeman. But duty is duty, sir, and I will have to place you under arrest,” West replied.

    And he was the last president ever held directly accountable under the law.

    1. Once again, we see built-in bias against Republicans!

    1. Negative 1000 for not being a pic of Robert Conrad

      1. DUDE…

        the city was Washington, D.C., and the offenders was President Ulysses S. Grant. Even more amazingly, the officer was William West, an African American.

        1. Okay, I’ll let it slide this time. But I’ve got my eye on you.

  2. Oh FFS, I guess I’ll be the one to say it: what in the HELL does this have to do with Trump???

    1. It has to do with historical presidential respect for authoritarianism. Trump is the designated poster child for authoritarianism. Hitlery is not even to be considered to be in the same arena as him. How many people has Hitlery sicced the IRS on and had their FBI files.

      I lost a lot of respect for Grant for failing to play the race card. Grant says, Sir, do you realize I fought to free you and you now shake me down for money? I pay your salary and I paid for your freedom.

      1. Freedmen Lives Matter

  3. Drug warriors in New Mexico go too far

    Hell no I won’t read that again. I’m pissed off enough from the last time.

  4. Grant arrested?! Where was the Secret Service…banging whores? I know this was pre-SS

    CASE #1: “The use of the highway for the purpose of travel and transportation is not a mere privilege, but a common fundamental right of which the public and individuals cannot rightfully be deprived.” Chicago Motor Coach v. Chicago, 169 NE 221.

    CASE #2: “The right of the citizen to travel upon the public highways and to transport his property thereon, either by carriage or by automobile, is not a mere privilege which a city may prohibit or permit at will, but a common law right which he has under the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Thompson v. Smith, 154 SE 579.

    It could not be stated more directly or conclusively that citizens of the states have a common law right to travel, without approval or restriction (license), and that this right is protected under the U.S Constitution.

    CASE #3: “The right to travel is a part of the liberty of which the citizen cannot be deprived without due process of law under the Fifth Amendment.” Kent v. Dulles, 357 US 116, 125.

    CASE #4: “The right to travel is a well-established common right that does not owe its existence to the federal government. It is recognized by the courts as a natural right.” Schactman v. Dulles 96 App DC 287, 225 F2d 938, at 941.

    Source: http://www.apfn.org/apfn/travel.htm

    What happened to respect for precedent?

    1. And yet, anytime the state seeks to restrict, impose burdensome regulation, profit from, or criminalize victim-less actions by drivers the crowd spontaneously responds in a resounding chorus, “Driving is a Privilege not a Right!”.
      The idea that government should be in the business of bestowing “privileges” is antithetical to our constitution but the vast majority will defend the proposition without question.
      And thanks for the references. Very interesting stuff.

  5. It’s worth noting that because it was U.S. Grant, he was also definitely driving drunk.

      1. I figured Cleveland was a beer drinker.

    1. A) Not a crime at that date.

      B) Grant was an episodic drinker, not a constant drunk like, say, Teddy Kennedy.

  6. One of the best parts of being a city slicker is little to no interaction with the police. I can probably count on one hand the number of interactions I’ve had with them over the last 18 years or so in NYC. And that includes my earlier, drunker years.

    1. Bet I can guess what color your skin is.

      1. Is this the part where you get to lecture me about privilege? Because I can tell where to shove it.

        1. No, we’re going to lecture you on your gated community.

          1. LOL, there is one of those near me but I don’t live in it.

    2. One of the best parts of being a city slicker living in the boonies is little to no interaction with the police.

    3. Yeah, but you’re fucked once society breaks down. I can go out back and hunt game.

      And remember, we are *always* one democrat president away from total dystopian societal collapse. Have been since 1992, so far as I can remember.

      1. Yeah, but you’re fucked once society breaks down.

        Oh, totally. Misery loves company though.

    4. Being a New Yorker you probably don’t drive much do ya

      Avoiding interactions is easy in the suburbs and now for the last year in a rural area.

      Since 1998
      Six ‘official’ interactions.
      Four were related to traffic(2 citations), one for apparently dressing in flannel (someone nearby broke into a car, not me of course), and once for peaceably exercising fundamental non-politically correct liberties in a public location.

      1. So you were masturbating in public and got hassled by The Man.

      2. Pics of the pajamas you were wearing would be great.

  7. The traffic stop, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, is “the most common reason for contact with the police

    Which is why when I had a bench warrant about 14 years ago, I quit driving my car for a couple of years.

  8. A $20 fine in 1872. What’s that, like $250,000 today?

    1. Still $20 here. Except on Interstates, where it’s $40 (for up to 10 over.

      Amount of Fine MPH in Excess of Speed Limit
      $20 1 – 10 (daytime)
      20 1 – 10 (nighttime)
      70 11 – 20
      120 21 – 30
      200 31+

      Fucking DC!

      1. The administrative fees are probably a couple times as much as the fine.

    2. Around $450.

    3. The BLS inflation calculator only goes back to 1913 but $20 in 1913 is $486.95 in 2016.

      1. This one goes back to 1791. Very handy when watching Deadwood

      2. Oops. I forgot Grant did not know the joy and benefits of the Federal Reserve.

  9. black[s] are five times more likely to be pulled over and searched in “investigatory stops.”

    “No! It’s impossible!”

    [Irish gets hand cut off]

  10. And today we treat presidents like royalty — literally. And charging a mere congressman is headline news.

    And then, there’s stuff like this: http://www.washingtonpost.com/…..00627.html

  11. Grant was also the subject of a somewhat apocryphal story involving a black sentry during the Civil War ordering then General Grant to put out his cigar due to fire hazard.

  12. “I am very sorry, Mr. President to have to do it, for you are the chief of the nation, and I am but a policeman. But duty is duty, sir, and I will have to place you under arrest”

    You mean, there was a time when that sort of thing could happen?

    Today the only cops allowed near the President would be the ones closing off the streets so his motorcade could pass at who knows how many MPH.

  13. Cops have been dicks from day one.

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