The coronavirus pandemic has changed a lot about the Christmas season. Travel plans have been cancelled. Family gatherings have been reduced in size and scope. There won't be nearly as many dinners at fancy restaurants.
But one terrible tradition persists. Police pulling people over as though they had committed some sort of traffic infraction, then giving them a gift instead.
This week WACH, a Fox affiliate in South Carolina, reports that deputies in Richland County are turning on the lights and sirens, pulling people over, and then giving them gift cards to Outback Steakhouse rather than citations or warnings. It is presented, as usual, as an uplifting story for the holiday season. A WACH reporter joined the cops and got happy interviews from people who thought they were getting tickets. The sheriff's department then gets to give itself the gift of a pat on the back for handing out free bloomin' onions to people instead of disrupting their lives and saddling them with fines.
This anxiety-inducing crap should not be rewarded with fawning press coverage. The police are abusing citizens' Fourth Amendment rights. Cops cannot simply pull people over with no suspicion of infractions, even to give them gifts.
Reason has criticized this behavior repeatedly. As Jacob Sullum noted back in 2016, 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."
WACH reports that the deputies pulled people over for speeding before giving them the gift cards, which if true might suggest that the sheriff's department is trying to avoid Fourth Amendment concerns by selecting people they would already have been stopping. But WACH's footage also shows deputies giving a gift card to a man on horseback walking along the side of a road, so I'm not so sure about that.
Call us Scrooges here for wanting the police to just leave people alone instead of giving out gifts, but this pandemic is likely to make police interactions all the more fraught this holiday season. Across the country, officials are ordering Americans around and telling us where we can go and when. The rules are confusing, ever-changing, unevenly enforced, and often not justified by scientific research about the spread of COVID-19.
The kindest thing law enforcement can do this Christmas is simply not stop anybody unnecessarily. It is not a "gift" to use your authority to create a sense of dread, even if you then use that same authority to relieve them of the dread you instilled in the first place.