Thursday, 29 July 2010

“Jumping the gun”: A meditation on random police stops

Reading Doc McGrath’s piece yesterday on the perfidy of the increasing number of random police stops, I thought immediately of a “short story” the founder of Libertarianz, Ian Fraser, wrote in his Liberty newsletter back in 1986 – i.e., way before most of you were born.

The story’s theme is well summarised by another comment made by Doc McGrath this morning:

_Quote Logically, some people would be happy if the roadside sniffer test was extended to a check of driver licence, warrant, registration and road user charges (oh, I forgot, this happens already). Or if the officer asked nicely if he could have quick look in your boot for illegal firearms, marijuana or a bald spare tyre ("this will only take a few seconds, sir, then you can be on your way"). Or asked for a DNA mouth swab ("there's nothing to fear is there, sir, if you're innocent?"). Or quickly checked the children in the car for signs of child abuse or neglect ("wouldn't want to miss an abused child, sir").
The problem I see is that there is no limit to what the government can tack onto these roadside testing areas. I imagine outstanding fines or rates bills will be another thing people will be asked about. There is no limit, and that's what gets up my nose… It's the principle, people, that the police can stop and detain people who have done nothing wrong, and interrogate them for as long as they like. That gets up my nose.
    “And what about the people who are killed or disabled despite the massive numbers of police out sniffing innocent drivers, while the victims of real crimes such as burglary have to wait days for a policeman to appear?”

So with that introduction I give you “Jumping the Gun,” which I’ve lightly edited for anachronism.

Jumping the Gun
by Ian Fraser

The lights flashed. The young man reluctantly pulled over to the side of the road. The pulsating red glow added a sense of urgency to the dull feeling of despair that suddenly overcame him. But there was nowhere to run and no point in. attempting it.

“Would you mind stepping out sir”, said the officer. His exaggerated politeness underscored his absolute authority. He stepped back from the car door. The young man responded quickly, he felt safer looking the officer in the eye.
“What’s wrong? he said.
“A routine check sir,” responded the officer. The young man had thought he’d asked a question. The officer thought he heard a plea for mercy.
“May I see your ID card?” he continued.
“I left it at home”, the young man replied. He always left it at home at night. He felt much safer without it.
“You realise that the law requires you to carry your ID at all times”, reprimanded the officer, and he paused as if to observe the effect of his words on the face before him. Yes, this is what he liked about this particular job. His carefully measured words nearly always drew a predictable and satisfying response. Not this time. Somehow, the darkness of the night was draining the expression from the young man’s face.
“What’s your name?” queried the officer. His abruptness almost caught the young man off guard.
“William James”, he blurted. It wasn’t really a lie, just a matter of interpretation. He been christened Wiremu and ha preferred the name, but he knew what his name must be tonight.
“What are you doing out at this hour?” the officer prodded, “Aren’t you aware of the curfew?”

The officer’s questions required no answers. Everybody knew of the curfew. It had been in force for nearly one year. There had been some vocal opposition at frst, but not sufficient to thwart the intentions of a government driven by the twin thrusts of the country’s fear and anger. Violent crime was endemic. There was no other solution.

Wiremu thought for a moment, then said, “I was at a friend’s place and I fell asleep. But I just had to get home as my wife is pregnant and is already overdue.” It was all true. The friend was a girl.
“Well I have to take you in for questioning”, said the officer. “You can phone your wife from there.”
Wiremu’s heart missed a beat as he tried to think of a way out. There was none. “I’ll take your keys”, demanded the officer, and he drew his gun as if anticipating trouble. That put an end to any thoughts of escape. Wiremu reached into the car and handed them over. The officer nudged him into the police wagon.
“What about my car?”, stalled Wiremu. “Somebody might nick it.”
“Not bloody likely,” scoffed the officer. “You wouldn’t be able to give it away.”

The distance to the police station was five kilometres, but the ride was interminable. Wiremu contemplated leaping out of the back door but he knew that all police wagons had central locking systems. Anyway, he was no James Bond. He cast his mind back. He’d spent many a night at Lorraine’s in the past few months, and he’d got home safely. He thought he’d found a foolproof way; a particular configuration of back roads and by-passes that were notorious for both their condition and emptiness. Dark as hell, and who would have thought ... the police wagon pulled to a halt. The officer got out and opened the back door.
“We’ll have to ask you a few questions and run the information through to our central computer,’ he said. “It will take about half an hour.”

Wiremu was led into a small, brightly lit office. That didn’t worry him, he knew his appearance wouldn’t give him away. What did worry him was the computer.
“You say your name is William James?”
“Your address?”
“25 Arcadia Way.”
“When were you born?”
“July the second, 1965,”
“Where do you work?”
“I’m self-employed.”

The questions had the precision of a machine gun. Wiremu was sure they would hit target except for one thread of hope. There was a real William James and he did live at 25 Arcadia Way and he was self-employed. Wiremu knew all this, he had rehearsed it many times before, as if his life depended on it-and it did. The officer left the room. Wiremu’s mind raced. Had he stated everything correctly? Had he missed anything out? He didn’t know for sure, he would just have to wait.

The officer returned, sooner than expected, accompanied by one other. His face showed no hint of what he was about say. At that moment Wiremu felt he was in no-man’s land.
“Well, Mr Wiremu Matthews,” said the officer, with an air of triumph. “I have to inform you that you are under arrest. You are charged, under section A of the Emergency Violence Suppression Act, with violating the MPCC laws”.

Wiremu knew the rest. The Maori & Polynesian Control Curfew, called MPCC by its supporters and “black death” by it foes, was perhaps the most loved and hated law in the whole country.

The law was very simple. All males on the streets between 10pm and 6am were liable to random interrogation. If it was discovered that they had 20% or more Maori or Polynesian heritage, then they were arrested, charged and imprisoned for up to one year.

How was the law justified? Easy. It was a well-known fact that Maori & Polynesian men, while representing the smallest percentage of the population, made up the largest percentage of violent offenders.

The statistics were irrefutable. The correlation between being a brown-skinned man and being a violent offender was too glaring to be ignored. Encouraged by massive public support, the legislature had attacked the cause at the root, by putting the potential offender away before he could even commit any crime.

Wiremu was stunned.
“How did you find out my real name?”, he gasped.
The officer just smiled, and led him off to a cell.

An implausible story you think?
Consider this:
The idea of “prior restraint” for Polynesian males, simply because they statistically make up the largest group of violent offenders, now has a socially acceptable precedent - random stopping of drivers for the “crime” of having “too much” Polynesian in their blood was no different in principle than random stopping of drivers for the “crime” of having too much alcohol in their blood.

The justification for random stopping is that the driver may have been drinking. If the driver is found, by breathalyser or blood test, to have above a certain prescribed quantity of alcohol in his system, then he is guilty. Guilty without even having committed an actual crime.

Charging an individual with this “offence” is not justified on the basis that the individual has committed a crime, but because the group to which he now belongs might. Statistically, alcohol plays a large part in road accidents (and brown-skinned males play a large part in crime); therefore an individual with “too much” alcohol, is likely to be involved in an accident (and brown-skinned males out late at night are likely to be involved in crime).

In random stopping and the ensuing convictions for having drunk “too much,” the public has accepted the principle of “prior restraint” on the basis of a collectivised guilt. If an individual seems likely to commit an offence because he or she is part of a particular “statistical cohort”(causing a road accident; breaking into people’s houses) then it is appropriate to “restrain” him or her prior to the act.

If it is a crime to drive with a certain quantity of alcohol in your blood, because, statistically the highest percentage of road accidents are alcohol related, then it could easily become a crime to be out on the streets after dark with a certain quantity of Maori or Polynesian in your blood. There’s a good statistical chance that you’d be up to no good, and it would be better for society as a whole if you were “restrained” BEFORE you could commit a crime.

Just as it is nonsense to assume that a particular individual is at risk just because he has Polynesian in his blood, so too it is nonsense to penalise an individual driver just because he has a certain quantity of alcohol in his blood. There are good drivers and bad drivers and all the shades in between. There are also drivers who drive better, even after a few drinks, than many who are totally sober.

Random stopping, and consequent conviction for blood-alcohol level infringement, is the thin edge of a particularly repulsive wedge. The public mood only has to shift a little to see the same principle applied to other areas.


  1. Random checks are an anaethema as you say.

    Part of the control system that hits the poor the hardest

  2. The creepy thing is we already have curfews with graduated licenses, cops check for passengers, and Driving While Young, and Driving While Young and Brown really do seem to be offences.

    My own son and several of his friends is stopped all the time for no good reason. Last conversation when he was a passenger in a Pacific Islander friend's car:

    Officer - "Do you know why you were pulled over?"

    Young person - "No."

    Officer - "Lots of cars like this have been stolen."

    And this happens all the time.


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