This morning a Phoenix TV station aired a feel-good story about cops who are "rewarding people for good driving behavior" by pulling them over and giving them coupons for drinks at Circle K convenience stores. "If you see a Tempe police officer pulling you over," chirped Colleen Sikora, a correspondent for the NBC affiliate KPNX, "it may not be a bad thing. If an officer sees someone following traffic laws correctly related to bicycles and pedestrians, they can pull you over, but instead of a citation, you'll get a free drink coupon for either a cold drink or hot beverage…They're kicking off the campaign this morning at 8 a.m., so if you see police lights in your rear view mirror, maybe hold off on the panic."
For anyone who values the Fourth Amendment, which requires that police have reason to believe a driver has committed a crime or a traffic violation to justify forcibly detaining him, the program described by Sikora is definitely "a bad thing." That sentiment is clearly shared by viewers who reacted to the story on Twitter. "This is an insanely bad & illegal idea," one commented. "This is actually illegal," observed another.
Seth Stoughton, a former police officer who is now a law professor at the University of South Carolina, elaborated: "This is absolutely unlawful. A traffic stop is a seizure, and must be supported by probable cause of a traffic infraction or reasonable suspicion of a crime. A traffic stop that lacks one of those legal justifications violates the Fourth Amendment."
To its credit, the Tempe Police Department seems to recognize that stopping motorists because they are not committing any traffic violations would be unconstitutional. According to the written version of the story on the KPNX website, bylined by Sikora herself, Tempe Det. Greg Bacon "said officers won't be pulling over drivers, but officers will find opportunities to engage and educate citizens on traffic laws."
Bacon explains the "Positive Ticketing Campaign" this way: "We will be having positive conversations with citizens. Say an officer happens to stop somewhere and see somebody, and says, 'Hey, would you mind having a conversation with me?' [to] educate them on bicycle laws and traffic laws." KSAZ, the Fox station in Phoenix, likewise says "Tempe police report they will not be pulling anyone over to give them a free drink coupon." In a tweet this afternoon, the Tempe Police Department reiterated that officers "will not be proactively stopping vehicles, bicycles, scooters or pedestrians."
A police department dispatcher described the Positive Ticketing Campaign as a "back-to-school program" aimed at bikers, scooters, and pedestrians. She told me it was never meant to target motorists.
Given that police officers across the country have been less punctilious about following the Fourth Amendment when they perceive themselves as doing nice things for people, Sikora's initial confusion may be understandable. But her insouciance in the face of blatant constitutional violations is harder to fathom.
[Thanks to Seth Mandel for the tip.]