Thanksgiving is associated with tradition. And it appears there's a relatively new one popular with police departments in recent years: pulling over unsuspecting drivers to give out turkeys instead of tickets.
This holiday season was no exception, with media reports detailing such outreach efforts put on by the Mesa Police Department in Arizona, the McAllen Police Department in Texas, and the Fulton Police Department in Illinois.
The catch: It's potentially against the law.
"They're legal so long as there is reasonable articulate suspicion that a crime was committed," says Andrew Fleischman, a defense attorney with Ross and Pines. "Absent that, it violates the Fourth Amendment."
In other words, the cops haven't violated anyone's constitutional rights if every driver pulled over for a turkey allegedly committed a traffic infraction. But that's not what's going on here.
Some departments aren't exactly hiding it. The cops in Fulton, Illinois, for example, admittedly eschew the Constitution and conduct such traffic stops on those who do follow the rules of the road. "Officers weren't plucking out scofflaws," reads a piece on the program in SaukValley.com. "Rather, they were issuing turkeys instead of tickets, all part of Operation Turkey Stop to reward mindful drivers."
And while other departments aren't necessarily so brazen with the messaging, it stands to reason that officers likely aren't exchanging turkeys for tickets when it comes to drivers who are actively endangering others and abusing the rules of the road.
"I was like 'Oh my God, no, what did I do?'" said Perla Romano, who was stopped in McAllen, Texas. "'I was scared because what did I do? I just panicked.'"
In Mesa, Arizona, cops zero in on those who commit minor civil infractions. Officers focus on "stop sign violations, red light violations, or making wide turns," says Mesa Police Sgt. Chuck Trapani. "We pull them over, and if they didn't have any criminal violations like warrants or anything like that, then we'd give them a warning violation, plus a turkey."*
A spokesperson for the McAllen Police Department was not able to comment and the Fulton Police Department did not respond to Reason's request as of this writing.
Though the initiative may sound benign, the Fourth Amendment exists for a reason: You have a right to privacy, and a right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. One wonders what might happen if an officer pulled someone over for a turkey and happened to catch a whiff of marijuana. Trade in that free Thanksgiving dinner for a potential jail cell.
Traffic stops rarely turn violent or deadly. Yet such instances are not unheard of. According to an investigation by The New York Times, police have killed more than 400 unarmed passengers—who were not suspected of any violent crimes—during traffic stops over the last five years, which amounts to more than one death a week. "It's [a] frivolous use of their monopoly on force," says Fleischman.
The spirit behind the program, according to the Mesa Police Department, is to engender affection between officers and the public during a time when cops have faced a sort of unprecedented pushback. Research indicates that such trust is indeed vital to building safer communities. But there are better ways for police to do that than by flouting the rule of law and violating people's constitutional rights.
*UPDATE: This piece has been updated with a comment from the Mesa Police Department.