Police Abuse

Cops Who Stop Drivers to Give Them Stuff Are Abusing Their Power

Keep your ice cream, and I'll keep my freedom.


Halifax Police Department

A white cop walks up to a car he has just stopped and asks the driver, a black woman, "Are you aware of why I pulled you over today?" The puzzled driver replies, "No, sir." The cop asks her if she is "familiar with Vehicle Code 1739." She is not, so he explains that "it's actually against the law to drive on a hot day without an ice cream cone." The driver laughs, either out of relief or amusement, as the cop hands her an ice cream cone. "Oh, my God!" she says repeatedly, laughing into her hand. She shakes the officer's hand as he wishes her a nice day.

Since viral videos of cops interacting with motorists usually involve abuses of power such as random searches, money grabs, bogus arrests, or the unjustified, occasionally fatal use of force, this episode, which was recorded in Halifax, Virginia, as part of Police Chief Kevin Lands' "attempt at developing better relations between police and the communities they serve," may seem like a refreshing change. But it also involves an abuse of power, albeit one disguised by benign intentions.

First, it's not clear there was a legal reason for pulling this woman over. WSET, the ABC station in Lynchburg, reports that Halifax police stopped about 20 drivers in one day "to hand out ice cream instead of tickets." It makes no mention of any traffic violations that might have justified the stops. Neither does the local CBS station. On Lands' Facebook page, where the video of the laughing motorist has been watched 7.7 million times, he describes the drivers who got ice cream as "speeders," which suggests cops ended up ignoring violations that supposedly were serious enough to pull people over. The woman in the video does not even get a warning, and there is no mention of any actual legal violation.

Cops have wide latitude to stop vehicles, but that latitude is not unlimited. "When the police pull over a car, that's a Fourth Amendment 'seizure' of the driver, any passengers, and everything inside," notes George Washington University law professor Orin Kerr at The Volokh Conspiracy. "To justify that seizure, the police need at least some cause either that a driver committed a traffic violation or that a person in the car is involved in a crime or wanted in connection with a serious crime. If the police have that cause, they can stop the car regardless of whether they want to write a ticket, investigate a crime or give the driver an ice cream cone. But the police can't pull over the car without any cause, even if they want to do something nice, such as give the driver a gift." Kerr also notes that the "something nice" could easily turn into something not so nice if a gift-bearing cop happens to notice illegal drugs or other evidence of lawbreaking.

The Halifax ice cream stunt reminds me of a program launched last year by the Macomb County, Michigan, sheriff's office that involved handing out gift cards to teenagers as a reward for good driving. In that case, the stops were clearly unconstitutional, since the teenagers were targeted for driving well—exactly the opposite of a legal justification. Other examples of cops pulling people over to give them stuff ostensibly involve actual traffic violations. In this 2014 video, a police officer in Lowell, Massachusetts, who gives a driver Christmas presents for her kids says he pulled her over for illegally tinted windows. In another video from the same year, a Covington, Louisiana, police officer gives a woman a $100 bill stamped "Secret Santa" after pulling her over, supposedly because she failed to stop completely at an intersection. He adds that giving her the present was "the real reason" for the stop.

The latter two examples would be deemed constitutional under the standard set by the Supreme Court, which says reasonable suspicion of a traffic violation makes a seizure legal even when it is not the real motivation for the stop. But these supposedly heartwarming interactions are still abuses of power. If police would not have stopped drivers for these minor violations unless they had gifts to hand out, they are deliberately inconveniencing people and causing them needless anxiety for the sake of a publicity stunt. The distribution of gifts is beneficent on the face of it, but it is a demeaning kind of beneficence given the inherently unequal relationship between a citizen and an armed agent of the state with the power to forcibly detain him. If someone without a badge (or with a fake one) made people pull their cars over so he could give them ice cream cones, he would be treated as a criminal, and the fact that he was only trying to put smiles on their faces would not be an admissible defense.

NEXT: Brickbat: Should I Not Have Done That?

Police Abuse Search and Seizure Fourth Amendment Criminal Justice

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59 responses to “Cops Who Stop Drivers to Give Them Stuff Are Abusing Their Power

  1. The distribution of gifts is beneficent on the face of it

    Are the cops buying said gifts with their own money?

    And if they are so hell bent on returning a small portion of their budget to the taxpayers, they could just as easily setup a roadside stand, with a sign “Your Local Cops Love You, Come Get Some Sweet Sweet (Pun Intended, lolol) Lucre” and let people come to them for this Benign Interaction.

    tl:dr version: KNOCK IT THE FUCK OFF.

    1. and how long do we have to wait for “cop pulls over woman to give her ice cream, shoots her in the face for noncompliance” story?

      1. Or detects the odor of marijuana…………….

        1. Which is the real reason why cops stop people. It’s not about the measly $150 ticket, it’s about generating a reason for civil forfeiture of a $20,000 car.

      2. Cop 1 hands out pistachio ice cream cones.Selects High Value Marks(HVM) based on car value, ethnic indicators, distance from home, estimated inability to afford lawyers and grovel factors.

        Cop 1 radios cop 2 who waits 2-3 miles down road, with description of mark.

        Cop 2 pulls over mark, and notices a messy car, a driver distracted by he munchies, and the green tongue indicative of Marihuana use. Based on overwhelming evidence of drug use while driving distracted, cops tell driver “I’m going to search your car, ok”.

        Cops video has glitch at this moment, but both cops heard driver agree to search, and voluntary search begins without objection by driver. Search turned up a zip lock baggie with traces of a substance that field tested as Heroin,opiates, or poppyseed dressing.

        Experts estimated baggie could hold “20 grams of a deadly heroin-fentanyl mix like what killed the chiefs daughter”, which has a minimum mandatory sentence death
        Cops get a tow truck to haul away new car, and tell mark he could face death on Heroin charges. Since nobody got hurt, they offer to let him just walk away and never return, if he forfeits all his property.

        Minimum of one High value mark(> $30k) per day minimum for $5 worth of ice cream .

  2. Spoilsports here at Reason. Can’t you set aside your anti-cop mentality for just a minute and appreciate law enforcement officers – WHO ARE PEOPLE JUST LIKE YOU AND ME – doing something nice for people by handing out treats and conducting warrantless searches for their fellow man?

    1. You’re absolutely right. The only possible drawback I see is that the next cop down the block pulls you over and sees ice cream on the floor and with his 11 years of experience with narcotics, conducts a field test and arrests you for possessing meth.

    2. They can stand on the corner and have people approach them to give out treats if they want. I’d like to travel to my destination uninterrupted.

    3. Cops are not “people like you and me.” They have chosen to be tyrants, an army of occupation, and should be treated as such. Viva Le Maquis.

  3. The LAST thing I want in my car is an ice cream cone. Best case: I leave it in its ziploc and it melts. Worst case: I try to eat the damn thing without it dripping on my upholstery and I get distracted and wind up rear-ending somebody.

    1. How is it not already melted, or did the cops rent an icecream truck for the stunt too?

      1. (ok, ok, I supposed a properly packed cooler, towels/dryice/iceontop, might keep the treats frozen for an hour or two)

        1. Maybe it’s astronaut ice cream.

          1. excellent, so we have NASA budgetary inflation on top of everything else wrong with the idea.

    2. Exactly. Sounds like the police are just drum(stick)ing up business.

      Pulling me over on a “friendly” and giving me less than $500 is a waste of my time.

      1. *Narrows Glaze*

      2. Pulling me over without probable cause will earn the chief of police a letter from my attorney.

        Some cops tried that on my sainted mother in PA about twenty years ago. Probable cause was the brand new inspection sticker “looked funny.” The third time in 3 days it happened she went off on “Badge #13”. The next day my father called the chief of police and read him the riot act. The next time my mother was pulled over for bullshit in this “Enhanced Drug Enforcement Zone” lawyers were going to get involved.

  4. And what if the person is lactose intolerant? Or paleo?

    Typical cis-enzyme privilege horseshit.

    1. To rip off a Progressive insurance commercial:

      “But they’re not handing out lactose, they’re handing out ice cream.”

    2. you left out diabetic.


    3. Lactose intolerant means
      1) you consider your opinion above the cop’s authority
      2) inclined to resist arrests.
      3) often involved in shootings by officers.
      > 99% ruled “Good Shoot” and won the coveted DNA award(Not that DNA

    4. Lactose intolerant means
      1) you consider your opinion above the cop’s authority
      2) inclined to resist arrests.
      3) often involved in shootings by officers.
      > 99% ruled “Good Shoot” and won the coveted DNA award(Not that DNA

    5. Lactose intolerant means
      1) you consider your opinion above the cop’s authority
      2) inclined to resist arrests.
      3) often involved in shootings by officers.
      > 99% ruled “Good Shoot” and won the coveted DNA award(Not that DNA

  5. Is Bruce the Shark consulting for police department Public Relations now?

  6. as part of Police Chief Kevin Lands’ “attempt at developing better relations between police and the communities they serve,”

    Because policing in a professional, unbiased and legal manner wouldn’t have that effect.

    1. Most of them already do but now have to contend with morons who believe every anti-cop natrative the media pushes on them. Hint: hands up font shoot never happened.

  7. The existence of this initiative in the first place is the proof we can’t trust police to do thiss

  8. Hint: It’s not about the friggin’ ice cream cone. It’s to look in your car.

    1. That’s a dark attitude

      1. That’s wacist?

      2. It’s also the right attitude. It’s an illegal stop for the purpose of making a visual search to develop probable cause.

    2. Another cop down the road pulls over those who are eating the ice cream and tickets them for distracted driving.

  9. Just make sure all the ice cream cones go to white people. I’m sure all the races will appreciate it.

    1. What are you basing your apparent belief upon- that people of different skin colors are different ‘races’?

      Technically there is only one race of humans on this planet. To speak in terms of more than one race is to perpetuate RACISM.

      I find it very ironic that MOST of the outspoken self proclaimed anti racists are actually perpetuating racism by doing so.

      “The concept of race actually originated from something called “scientific racism” which has since been discredited by modern science, primarily because there are more generic variations within a race than between them. Today most people equate race with skin color, but under the original theories, they divided the world into two to twelve different races, depending on the proponent. A notable example was the Aryan race which was championed by Hitler and the NAZIS. This Aryan race included some “white” people, but others we today consider “white” would have been sent to the gas chambers. The concept of race has always been a social construct they tried to justify with bad science (which has since been discredited by modern science), but some people still believe it’s real. It’s become simplified over the years into color coding people, but regardless, it is a dangerous and destructive concept. Hopefully some day we can get past it.”

      Oh well.

      1. The concept of race may be a social construct, but it is still real. Pretending to be color blind tends to be a tactic to evade discussing racism. We need to talk about race. We can’t confront racism without talking about race, so this talk about “no such things as race” is itself racist nonsense.

  10. Honestly, it would be better if they just pulled people over and said, “You were doing 10 miles over the speed limit sir. So I am going to give you this Ice Cream Sandwich that I wrote ‘Slow Down’ on the ziplock with a sharpie, and you can have a nice day.”

    1. are the people in this example actually speeding, or are you saying the cops should at least come up with a legitimate false-pretext for the stop?

  11. In the 80’s, Houston police were pulling people over and giving them movie tickets for good driving. My friend was driving along, got pulled over and as he rolled down the window, pot smoke billowed out right into the officers face. The officer does his spiel, gives him the tickets and drives off. All we could figure at the time was that the officer knew it was an illegal stop and just let him go.

  12. “Here’s a free ice cream cone. This is so you’ll remember how cool I am when I bitch and moan about my pension next week.”

  13. This is such an infuriating practice. I’m pretty sure I’d get arrested if I was ever pulled over for this (though first I’d need to drive somewhere).

  14. One ice cream cone for the momentarily terrified driver, three for the cop. Cops are fat.

  15. you guys…

  16. Even if you are technically correct, this kind of article does harm to the cause of trying to reform police. Even when they’re trying to do something nice they get blasted for it. It makes everyone who wants to call out actual police misconduct seem rabidly anti-cop just for the sake of complaining.

    1. Feeble propaganda trying to paint cops as goofy nice guys deserves to be criticized, because they’re not doing a damn thing to reform the problem of shooting people in the back and stuff. Ice cream cones aren’t quite enough.

    2. Uh…
      There’s a huge difference between manipulating people’s opinions thru PUBLIC RELATIONS and actually DOING SOMETHING which equates to reform.

      Handing out ice cream does not cut it. By the way, Edward Bernays (nephew of Freud and known as the father of public relations) coined the term ‘public relations’ because the Nazis had used the term PROPAGANDA and he wanted to use their concepts but free of the stigma.

      You do know that the best slave is a slave who believes they are free, right??

  17. Libertarians are such pleasant people. Can’t even enjoy a kind gesture. This is why people hate you

  18. Well, damned if you do, damned if you don’t. This column officially takes the position that, no matter what the police do, it’s wrong.
    What I really need to know from the experts is, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Until we have answers to such burning questions, we will never have peace on this earth.

    1. Yeah you’re right- because we all know that ice cream should be enough to make up for all the abuses. Maybe after an officer involved shooting the cops should just take ice cream to the family? That should make everything right again.

      1. I strongly doubt the person given the ice cream was somehow the same person wronged by police. For the love of God, DON’T SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF, people!!!!

      2. Yeah, you’re right — because we all know that the police thought it would make up for all the (real & PERCEIVED) abuses. Though I’d imagine nothing would “make up” for anything w/you & people like you. Misguided though the execution was, it was a nice gesture. & repairing relations has to start somewhere. B/c after all, despite what so many libertarians, anarchists & liberals believe, not every cop is a jack-booted thug.

        1. If they’re not part of the solution, they’re part of the problem. Either work to get bad cops off the street, or you are by definition a bad cop.

  19. It reveals their thinking process.

    They are entitled to pull people over. For whatever reason they deem necessary.

  20. I understand the premise, but holy shit, give it a rest. Nitpicking this kind of outreach, misguided as it is, is the same thing as cops busting a little girl’s unpermitted lemonade stand. Taking a stand against this may be correct, but it’s not right.

    1. Bulllshit. Bad cops are bad cops. These are bad cops who happen to pass out ice cream.

  21. the ice cream trick is just so when they fuck them over the next time they’ll be a little more docile.

    it’s also funny to note that many people will tell you that there is no police problem in america, but they feel the need to stop random people and give them ice cream for some reason and post it on the internet.

  22. When can we see a feel good video of a cop breaking the blue wall of silence? Or some officers letting a drug dealer go because they realize after their shift ends they will purchase and consume a recreational drug in a neighborhood tavern? How about we see footage of police officers resigning in protest over the corrupt and racist laws their jobs require to enforce?

  23. Yes, of course. Let’s admonish the police for trying to break the stigmatism of “shoot first and to hell with the questions.”

    Let’s accuse them of abusing their authority for doing something positive in the community.

    This entire article was in very bad taste, Mr. Sullum. Shame on you, and shame on Reason for even trying to find something terrible in this.

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