Reader Mike Kane writes:
I sell packaging equipment for other companies and recently designed my own machine. One customer wanted details about how it works, and being reluctant to send pictures or video over the Internet before the final design is complete, I packed up the slide-in camper and headed to the Wolverine State. The presentation went well. I overnighted at a rest stop in Indiana, then headed to Minnesota to meet with another client. That meant transit through the Land of Lincoln. After paying the last toll westbound on I-90, I passed a county sheriff’s cruiser straddling the medium and settled down for some extended windshield time. Three minutes later, in the outside lane, the same cruiser, rolling five over, slowed and ran my plates . . .
You know why I pulled you over?
“Uh, no clue officer.”
You changed lanes without turn signals and were weaving a bit, perhaps wind interacting on the camper. Hey I’ll write up a no-fine warning and have you on your way.
(The first lie…then the bombshell.)
Oh one thing…are you transporting drugs, large amounts of cash or firearms?
He repeated this question three times.
My brain just stopped. I was traveling five under the limit trying to maximize mpg on a rolling brick. I’m a business owner, a law-abiding John Q. and I’m suspected of being a drug mule. My mind tried to process.
Drugs? Not even an aspirin in the vehicle. Large amounts of cash? Only a hundred bones to pay for — you guessed it — Illinois’ toll roads. Illegal firearms? Nope. Then it hit me…the handgun I store in my computer bag while sleeping at rest stops was resting on the passenger seat. I forgot to store it in the camper.
More mental processing. Did he mean legal or illegal firearms? Being a reader of TTAG, you hear about these “events” and think…not me. But during the next two hours it became my world.
First clear thought: is this actually a drug stop or just the blue crew fishing for revenue? I elected not to blurt out anything about said firearm and waited to see how he’d play it.
The officer asked a series of questions; what I do, where I came from, how long I’ve been traveling, did I have a business card or any brochures for what I sell. All were respectfully answered, thinking he would see that I’m not a muleskinner and send me on my way. But the questions kept coming. Who did I meet in Michigan (he asked for names). Some of my answers weren’t smooth, not because of the bangstick, but because I wondered why, after multiple lines of evidence of who I am, was this public servant not connecting the dots?
Then John Law played his card. It seems I fit a profile. Old fat white guy, Chevy 2500HD, camper and California tags, residing in the northern central valley. He asked me to step out of the truck and noted my folding knife, pointed and said,
What IS that?
“It’s a legally sized knife. I’m in the packaging business and I open boxes with it.”
Well this CONCERNS me.
I explained my concerns about filling up at strange gas stations at midnight; perhaps it’s the only solution preventing a brick to the head.
Still, this CONCERNS me.
See how a peace officer shapes the narrative using the word CONCERN regarding the performance of his duties? How does one counter the word concern? You can’t.
I was invited to his patrol car for still more questions about my business. Then the second reveal: the trooper issued a CYA moving violation and announced that he wanted to search my truck. I replied with a polite no thanks…then the long pause.
What is your CONCERN, citizen?
“Well, I’m a liberty guy, engaging in interstate commerce and I’ve freely given you multiple lines of evidence of who I am and my profession. I see no need to search my vehicle.”
Well citizen, this is not my first rodeo. And my seventeen years of experience detect untruthful answers and I have CONCERNS.
There’s that CONCERN word again. Once more, I declined the search and more conversation ensued. Seeing no way out, I asked if he looked in the camper and all is well, would I be free to go? He said yes. (That was the second lie.)
I opened the camper. The officer looked and asked what was in the tote bag. I told him it was food and opened it to prove it. I closed the door and officer said,
Let’s check the passenger side of the vehicle.
Now the officer is moving the goal posts, so I said no. Any further search and he’d need a warrant.
I don’t need a warrant and I’m calling for a drug dog. You may sit in the patrol car and keep warm.
I declined the offer and stood there for thirty minutes while a local rolled up to assist and finally the dog showed. Courts may see this is an unreasonable delay, but I’m no Perry Mason.
What ensued was a procedural checklist positioning the citizen away from the vehicle, securing my phone so no video recording or communication with anyone took place, and a claim of a drug alert while the dog was in front of the vehicle. That’s where my category shifedt from citizen to detained suspect, with hands on the hood, a body search for weapons and a back seat view of a highly-specialized vehicle designed for law enforcement that contained radar, video cameras, lighting, shields, multiple handcuffs, and wi-fi-enabled computers. Today’s cruisers have come a long way from the 70’s single radio, bubble light and siren.
The patrolman was specialized as well. Body armor, weapons belt, multi-channel radios. How much does all this equipment cost? Multiply that by the three jurisdictions that were preparing to rummage through my personal belongings.
Then the officer opened the squad car door and, in the gentlest tone asked,
Citizen, you’re 53 without a record…what are you hiding?
He had inferred guilt rather than realizing that, without a record, chances are I was just going about my business. I later learned that he had called my client in Michigan to confirm my meeting and profession before the search.
Now I had a choice: I could hold the line and bet the three law dogs fail to find my pistola while saying something snarky like, “It’s your rodeo, so cowboy up, big guy.” Or I could de-escalate with the understanding the officers’ experience noted some inflection in my voice…a look or something that triggered his instincts. He knew damn well I wasn’t a drug mule, but had to solve the puzzle.
Confirming his instinct, I relayed that a gun was in the passenger area.
IS IT ILLEGAL?
“No, legally registered in my name.”
Then I called his title and name and spoke the following:
“As a Marine I shot every light infantry weapon in the inventory. With two laps around the planet and a skirmish under my belt, I got out in ’93 and never wanted to shoot another gun as long as I lived…until Sandy Hook.”
He paused, made a comment about a mad man and I replied,
“That gun is for lawful self-protection; why our legislators continue to remove or restrict that right is beyond me.”
He quietly closed the door and proceeded with his task. There was a long delay until the officer finally strolled back, opened the door, half smiled and said,
You must be good…three officers and a dog can’t find your gun.
I told him exactly where it was. The moment of truth about my gun was admitting to possessing a concealed weapon in the passenger area of the car, a violation of Illinois law and, regardless of intent, I was liable for my actions. That’s when the best outcome presented itself. Using his discretion, he opened my camper, cleared the weapon, placed both gun and magazine in the food container and locked the door.
He returned to the squad car and counseled me on the proper transport of weapons through multi-state jurisdictions. I was free to go.
Once cleared, the officers’ demeanor changed and their sense of urgency to leave the area to patrol elsewhere took over. The K9 officer came up to me and explained he had to file a report on the false alert and asked if anyone using drugs had sat in the passenger seat.
“No officer, the truck has 7000 miles on it, still has a new vehicle smell. And by the way, your dog didn’t alert, no paw scratching or squatting.”
Silence. He quickly turned and shuffled away from the big drug bust that didn’t happen.
I drove off and miles later, off the highway, I decompressed realizing luck had smiled on me and I sorted through the emotions and facts of what happened. From start to finish, the search was clearly illegal. Everyone I told this story to, including my neighbor, who’s a cop, stated what occurred was against the Constitution. Yet on a highway, through a series of laws, a perimeter vehicle search is legal, and a false alert is all the justification a trooper needs to skirt the Fourth Amendment.
A Google search of traffic stops reveals scores of jurisdictions trolling out-of-state drivers to seize property. Prosecutors get 10-12% with the remaining going to state coffers. Last year in Illinois in one county, $4 million was seized.
The crossroad is the presumption of liberty vs. enforcement reality. Realities of state legislators with good intensions creating laws giving police free rein to erode citizens’ rights while generating revenue for their departments. Suppose I failed to pay a twenty-five dollar parking ticket two years ago. I would have been arrested, have had to post bail, get my truck out of impound, and perhaps pay a lawyer. The forgotten violation now generates $1100 for an industry whose purpose is to augment itself through warrantless searches.
Am I thankful for the trooper’s discretion. However, I lost any remaining respect for the profession and finally realize the real triad is the law enforcement castle feeding and protecting itself while the ones they “serve” are delayed, lied to and stroked for revenue. All with the support of legislators and judges interpreting the Constitution in ways to indirectly benefit themselves.
Institutional maneuvering around the Fourth Amendment lays the groundwork for eroding the Second and eventually the First. An entire class of employees relentlessly empowering government to restrict lawful self-defense. My new hobby will be to work the moral high ground of Constitutional carry in every state.