Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

Officer Feelgood, Meet the Constitution

Cops who stop motorists to give them stuff are abusing their power.

When Officer Cameron Burke pulled over Jenna Rodgers, a student at Warwick High School in Lititz, Pennsylvania, and told her she had exceeded the speed limit by 15 miles an hour, she was confused because she knew she hadn't. It turned out the traffic stop had been arranged by her boyfriend, Collin Kauffman, who approached her car holding a sign that said, "You're under arrest unless you say yes. Prom?"

Whether Kauffman's promposal strikes you as charming or alarming will depend on your attitude toward police and the restrictions imposed on them by the Constitution. Although everyone involved thought it was all in good fun, Burke violated the Fourth Amendment by stopping Rodgers for no legal reason, and there are similar problems with other feel-good stunts involving cops and motorists.

In a video posted last year by Halifax, Virginia, Police Chief Kevin Lands, 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, out of either relief or amusement. "Oh, my God!" she says repeatedly.

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 may seem like a refreshing change. But it also involves an abuse of power, albeit one disguised by benign intentions.

WSET, the ABC station in Lynchburg, reported that Halifax police stopped about 20 drivers in one day "to hand out ice cream instead of tickets." It made no mention of any traffic violations that might have justified the stops. Neither did the local CBS station.

On Lands' Facebook page, where the video of the laughing motorist has been watched nearly 8 million times, he describes the drivers who got ice cream as "speeders," which suggests cops ended up ignoring traffic offenses that supposedly were serious enough to pull people over. In the video, there is no mention of any actual legal violation.

Cops have wide latitude to stop vehicles, but that latitude is not unlimited. Such stops are "seizures" under the Fourth Amendment, and they must be "reasonable," which usually means there is reasonable suspicion of a traffic offense.

A couple of years ago, the Macomb County, Michigan, sheriff's office pulled teenagers over and gave them gift cards as a reward for good driving. Those stops were clearly unconstitutional, since the teenagers were targeted for driving well—the opposite of a legal justification.

In a 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.

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.

© Copyright 2017 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    I understand being vigilant about constitutional rights but when you start dumping on silly things like cops helping with wedding proposals and giving out icecream you just make yourself sound like the libertarian version of a screaming ranting irrational SJW twit.

  • DaveSs||

    If you listen to what many police claim, a traffic stop is the absolute most dangerous thing they do because "you never know if the person you stopped is a lunatic who's going to try to kill you"

    Technically speaking this view is false (driving around all day is the most dangerous), but in any case, intentionally creating a potential for conflict by pulling people over for no damn good reason is unwise.

    Personally I don't want it. I don't like getting pulled over (exceedingly rare as it has been for me....3 times in 20+ years driving). Makes me damn nervous. More so these days as I'm likely to be carrying. In some parts of the country (even if you are totally legal) you never know if the Cop who pulled you over is going to freak out if they see your sidearm and shoot first, ask questions later...if you heal.

  • some guy||

    Technically speaking this view is false (driving around all day is the most dangerous)

    Especially consider how they drive. Amirite?

  • ||

    So you're the guy doing 20 in a 30 zone I'm stuck behind, huh.

  • DaveSs||

    Hardly

    The trick to not getting pulled over is to stay within a reasonable margin.

  • JWatts||

    "I understand being vigilant about constitutional rights but when you start dumping on silly things like cops helping with wedding proposals and giving out icecream you just make yourself sound like the libertarian version of a screaming ranting irrational SJW twit."

    +1, this is exactly the extremist type of position that proggies stake out.

    This is a no harm, no foul situation and a normal person is going to read this article and think Libertarians are humorless idiots for writing it.

  • rudehost||

    You are right. Other then the stress of being stopped and forcefully interrupting whatever these people were doing no harm no foul. If I was headed to a meeting or picking up my kids from school or going to a job interview I wouldn't find being pulled over for an ice cream cone to be "harmless". The problem isn't libertarians. It is twats who think this kind of thing is OK and that their publicity stunt is more important than whatever I was doing.

  • Unemployed Armenian Tranny||

    ^^^This.

  • Crusty Juggler aka "Chad"||

    This is a no harm, no foul situation and a normal person is going to read this article and think Libertarians are humorless idiots for writing it.

    Agreed. Name me one time a police officer pulled a person over and something bad happened. One time. I'm waiting.

  • Robert||

    Plus, it's written in a humorless tone, & we know Jacob's capable of being vy funny.

  • Robert||

    & it's not the 1st time he's had a piece on the subject here. We know & appreciate that you've done the research, Jacob, but just because you've collected a few more cases doesn't mean the subject deserves the space over again.

  • cgr2727||

    Agree we don't want to come off as adopting the same sort of shrillness the SJW's employ at every perceived slight. BUT, cultural appropriation, gay wedding cakes, and such aren't quite the same as being detained by an armed agent of the state with a license to kill, regardless of whether the detention is "all in good fun" or not.

  • Robert||

    Not only that, but the likeliest alternative (which is probably resorted to more often than not) is someone's impersonating a policeman to do the same thing. In 1 way that's better (not taking police away from important work), but in other ways that's worse.

    This kind of practice is a bad thing, but mostly it's an indicator of worse things: Why do police need a p.r. boost by such stunts as this, playing ball with the kids, parading, etc.? The only large body of gov't employees who might need it worse would be postal workers, but fortunately in this century they seem to be behaving themselves much better than they did in the last.

  • pan fried wylie||

    It's still early.

  • mjs_28s||

    "I understand being vigilant about constitutional rights but when you start dumping on silly things like cops helping with wedding proposals and giving out icecream you just make yourself sound like the libertarian version of a screaming ranting irrational SJW twit."

    So its ok with you to possibly waste people's time, pull them over for no valid reason, possibly scare them, waste the police's time that should be put to use fighting crime all because someone is being nice?

    Don't be an idiot. Just because the intent is good doesn't mean that the action is. If you use that kind of thinking then what you are saying is a version of the ends justify the means.

    Who cares if what someone does is illegal as long as the outcome is a good thing, right?

    It is not ok to take people's time away from them or to intrude on their lives for the purpose of a stupid ass ice cream cone, gift card, or whatever.

  • pan fried wylie||

    stupid ass ice cream cone, gift card, or whatever.

    These examples where random motorists are involved are the real sticking point, the motivation for the article, not this one time where it was a setup for a specific target.

    So yeah, poor article, good point.

  • LarryWilson||

    So this part of the constitution is silly!

    Those founding fathers had a remarkable sense of humor.

    When they conduct themselves in this fashion, they are operating under the color of the law. The constitution demands equal protection under the law. This is a pure violation of that obligation.

  • Spinach Chin||

    I mean... come on...

  • Memory Hole||

    Fucking roast dude. Remember this bullshit the next time they try to tell you how dangerous traffic stops are.

  • Texasmotiv||

    I think there are more pressing usurpations of our liberty than police handing out ice cream.

    Although I would like to see them fake pull over someone who has drugs in the car and they bolt ensuing a chase and guns them down. That would be a little hard to explain to a judge.

    I guess that's why they aren't handing out ice cream in low-income inner city neighbor hoods.

  • Mike Laursen||

    Buying ice cream for black, inner-city kids is how, apparently, Warren Beatty thinks deep racial/socioeconomic tensions can be solved, judging by his Bullworth movie.

  • ||

    It wasn't his fault, it didn't even say "ice cream" in the envelope

  • gaoxiaen||

    I wouldn't appreciate a gift under those circumstances. I'd talk to a lawyer.

  • Longtobefree||

    I am waiting for the first one of these where the victim has a heart attack and dies. It will probably be blamed on the ice cream.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    "But, officer, I'm lactose intolerant."

    "You know what I'm intolerant of? [into radio] Request K9 unit for drug search, this location."

  • freedomlover||

    probable cause?

  • Dan S.||

    So how did Ms. Rodgers react? Did she say "Yes" and let the boyfriend who arranged the stop take her to the prom? Or did she tell him no, and that she was breaking up with him, because he took her Constitutional rights not to be stopped without cause so lightly? I suspect the former (but have no definite information); if so, she is really not an appropriate symbol for this campaign.

  • GroundTruth||

    Sorry, cops have too much power already. Any attempt to make light of it and laugh these stunts off just feeds a (watered down version of) boy will be boys mentality that they treat each other with, but not the general public. Heaven help a driver who stops one of them for a joke.

    As for other unjustified stops, the local firemen gum up traffic on summer holidays by having "voluntary tolls": they stand there with a boot for you to throw cash into. You have to stop, given the way they position themselves. You don't have to contribute, but you do have to listen to their holier than thou patter. Not funny when the temp is 85 degrees, and the tourists are backed up 2 miles trying to get to the beach, etc.

  • freedomlover||

    An acquaintance of mine is a female detective at SFPD. She likes to say that cops are just nerds with guns. And, it scares her.

  • pan fried wylie||

    Heaven help a driver who stops one of them for a joke.

    There's an app citation for that.

  • sarcasmic||

    Alright. Let's see if they system will let me stay logged in long enough for my comment to post.

    Whenever you get pulled over you can never know if it's a gag, if they're going to give you a gift, if your tags are expired, or if you fit the description of a cop killer. It is never a laughing matter. This is a thug who sought out a position of power for the purpose of hurting people, and you are now at their mercy.

    No matter how you slice it this is a disgusting abuse of power. Cops are not your friends. They do not serve or protect. They issue orders and kill anyone who does not obey.

    Fuck Officer Feelgood, and fuck all of you who think it's not a big deal.

  • Marty Feldman's Eyes||

    and causing them needless anxiety

    Fuck Officer Feelgood, and fuck all of you who think it's not a big deal.

    I'm inclined to agree. It's incredibly stressful to be pulled over *especially* when you know you've done nothing wrong. Heck, if I've been speeding, blew a stop sign or something, then yeah, I'm pretty calm if I'm pulled over because I know what I did and I know the song and dance. When you're innocent, that's when its stressful.

    It also ignores the fact that they are doing this for their own selfish benefit, for their own PR. They aren't doing it to be nice, they are doing it so that next time someone gets a beatdown the public thinks of them as those nice people who gave them a nice surprise that one time. They are doing it so the public gets the warm fuzzies come next negotiation with the city. They are doing this because they don't have the trust of the public and are trying to buy it back on the cheap, without earning it the hard way. How's this for PR: skip the treats and unnecessary stops and just stop doing the kind of shit that gets you bad publicity.

  • Meh.||

    This.

  • freedomlover||

    Like American GIs handing out candy to kids in village they just laid waste to.

    Propaganda

    Nothing more. Nothing less.

    The police can get the good PR they seek simply by policing themselves better. Start by breaking down the blue wall of silence.

  • Curt||

    "Whether Kauffman's promposal strikes you as charming or alarming will depend on your attitude toward police and the restrictions imposed on them by the Constitution. "

    No, actually, my opinion of Kauffman's promposal is based primarily in a firm belief in the absolute, utter stupidity of the promposal trend.

    But, yeah, it's fucked up for cops to pull people over for no reason.

  • Texasmotiv||

    Promposals should be replaced by an efficient LFG (looking for group) style queuing system where one enters things like their high school popularity caste, height, weight, relative attractiveness, etc and it matches them to another available prom-goer using an algorithm. The technology is there.

  • creech||

    A local charity once ran a fund raiser where people could have their friends "arrested." The person was then hauled to the local mall where they were informed it was all for a charity, then they had to call their friends to pledge X dollars to "bail them out." So, cops show up at my employer, ask for Mr. So and So (who happens to be the black guy in the engineering dept.). He comes out to the lobby, they throw handcuffs on him, and frog march him to the patrol car.
    He's scared shitless (he later tells us) and, of course, news of his arrest flies all over the building. About an hour later, he calls and let's us know, we chip in like a $100, and everyone laughs. The gag must not have gone over very well because that was the last time the charity pulled that stunt. About half my colleagues thought there was nothing wrong with this and that I was "too square" to appreciate it.

  • Meh.||

    $100 seems crazy steep though, I'd be irritated too. My college pulled a similar stunt for Welcome Week, where there was a squad car parked in the gymnasium and you could pay to have them arrest your friends. Of course, they could bail themselves out for a $5 fee, or have to sit in the back of the car for 10 whole minutes. Also in college, one time when my gorgeous roommate was giving me a ride, she got pulled over for "illegal window" tinting, but it was just so some cop she vaguely knew could flirt with her (super awkward because I was still shotgun but had to pretend like I wasn't there).

    No real point to sharing my anecdotes, except all these incidents seem like ridiculous abuses of power.

  • freedomlover||

    Yeah. My irresponsible but good looking blonde niece got pulled over for some infraction in her new Camaro. She hadn't bothered to register the car, she didn't have her DL on her and she had no insurance either.

    The cop let her off with a stern warning, a promise to follow up and her telephone number.

    That was grounds for termination as far as I'm concerned. Dereliction of duty.

  • Tony||

    No I will not go to the prom with you. This incident constitutes a red flag, and I shall now terminate this relationship.

  • sarcasmic||

    Somehow I seriously doubt being inundated with prom requests was ever your problem.

  • Tony||

    My prom experience was interesting in how normal it all turned out. I had to turn down the girl I went to the winter dance with because I was in a sham relationship with her best friend, my stand partner in the string orchestra, now a lesbian. We ate at a French restaurant. The dance was unmemorable. We met up with our group of friends at the hotel suite my mother had booked for us, drank trashcan punch until we all passed out far too early. I was crushing on the guy passed out in the bedroom but was forced to share a pull-out bed in the sitting room with my supposed girlfriend. It was a nearly perfect prom night in its bland combination of mindless ritual and youthful inability to handle liquor.

  • Louis Lucky||

    Mr. Sullum must be one of those people leading a sad, sad life. "for the sake of a publicity stunt" - we need people like this Reason writer to tell us exactly what people are thinking when they do things - you know like judges are omnipotent when applying hate crime enhancements. Sullum is the kind of guy who would insist on enforcing "Sunshine Law" regulations when Joe talks to Sally about giving a charity grant from a volunteer organization. Somebody has to go to jail to keep the Sullums happy.

  • Rufus J. Fisk||

    hey I did my student teaching at that high school!

  • Inigo Montoya||

    This sort of thing could be Exhibit No. 1 for the types of people I often encounter who think a libertarian is just a right-winger who happens to think pot should be legalized. Right-wingers love this sort of story, because it casts bully cops in a supposedly charming light and, in their minds, it proves the "inherent goodness" of these traditional government institutions.

    Progressives also lap up this kind of crap because, to them, it demonstrates their sacred mantra government is good. They think their overlords actually do care about the little people, and the jackbooted thugs have kindly hearts beneath their gruff, militarized exteriors. Yeah right.

    Real libertarians see this for the abuse of power it is.

  • Robert||

    So what do you want to do? Become known as that nut who sees this as an abuse of power? Or garner respect & influence w others to try to accomplish something really important?

  • freedomlover||

    When I preach Libertarianism both sides always just down, tell me life without excessive government regs would be impossible and, Libertarians are a sorry lot of anarchists with no real solutions to the problems they all think need to be solved...............by a benevolent albeit totalitarian government of course.

  • I am the 0.000000013%||

    OMG, pushing a dietary or capitalist agenda on helpless victims CANNOT STAND.

  • freedomlover||

    I'll bet that wasn't all the tart got either!

  • freedomlover||

    Maybe this is what airport security should have done to that guy on the UA flight instead of dragging him off forcefully?

  • josh||

    What would be intriguing to know is what would happen if someone threw a justifiable fit for getting pulled over for an ice cream cone? My guess is they get pulled over again real soon or that officer sees a broken tail light that wasn't there five seconds ago.

    The only reason they do something like this in the first place is because they know the bad reputation they have, and think this will make it all better. Meanwhile, the same abuses that lead to that reputation continue unchecked. Lastly, you might shrug this off by saying this little violation of our rights won't lead to anything more substantial, but history shows otherwise. It's ignoring the little things that inevitably emboldens people. And besides, in what world is violating the rights of an individual in the name of pr comfort that you won't violate our rights just because you're having a bad day?

    Besides, I want pizza dammit!

  • JH||

    Stupid waste of time on this article.

  • Public Pretender||

    Had a similar prom experience 15 or so years ago. Eating at a fancy restaurant with my date when an old lady starts choking. She's on the floor and everyone's freaking out. I give her the Heimlich cause I just got cpr certified to be a life guard and knew how to do it. She starts breathing again and survived I presume. Didn't even get laid that night. Couple days later a cop pulls me out of class and puts me in his squad car. Wouldn't tell me what was going on or where he was taking me. Drives me to a restaurant where there was some award ceremony going for me. The news was there along with my parents. Got a bunch of free shit. They thought it would be funny to surprise me. Glad I didn't skip school day. CSB.

  • Jury Nullification||

    "Didn't even get laid that night."

    You could not even bang the broad whose life you saved? Did you at lease cop a feel or get some tongue action with some mouth to mouth...after the food cleared of course lest one be vulgar.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online