MINOT, N.D. — Back in November, I mentioned in a column the frequency with which drug cases, originating from traffic stops made by North Dakota cops, were being tossed because of evidence suppressed by judges.
Suppressed because North Dakota cops need a refresher course on the Fourth Amendment.
My colleague April Baumgarten now reports that one of the cases I wrote about, pending at the time, has also ended with charges dismissed after dozens of pounds of meth and marijuana seized during a traffic stop were suppressed as evidence.
"A federal judge has dismissed a drug case against two Californians who were arrested in March after North Dakota troopers said they found 32 pounds of meth and 35 pounds of marijuana in a car traveling on Interstate 94 near Fargo," Baumgarten writes.
The problem, as it is frequently in these cases, was the traffic stop. The driver, in this instance, was stopped for being rigidly correct in her driving and not looking at the cop who was driving alongside her car and staring her down, as if that weren't how perfectly innocent people would behave under those circumstances.
“The 'pre-stop indicators' (the arresting cop) described -- slowing down when observing a patrol vehicle, driving in a ‘rigid’ manner, and not looking at him when he paralleled the vehicle -- singly or in combination are not indicative of criminal activity,” a federal magistrate judge who worked on the case wrote. “Rather, they are innocuous behaviors.”
The cop pulled this car over because he had a hunch, not because the driver was guilty of any real infraction.
In this instance, the hunch was right. Drugs were found.
What he didn't find was a legal reason for a traffic stop.
The defense side of the criminal justice system is very effective in ferreting out real abuses by the government, such as cops making bogus traffic stops. It's significant weakness, unfortunately, is that the context in which those abuses get detected are criminal cases in which real crime has occurred, and the defendants aren't terribly sympathetic.
In this situation, we're dealing with a couple of people who actually had a considerable quantity of drugs. I'm sure you readers are as frustrated as I am that the charges against them were dropped.
Yet they had to be dropped for the sake of protecting all the innocent people from unlawful searches.
What happens when a cop's hunch isn't right? And he or she ends up stopping and essentially harassing some law-abiding citizen?
How many times a day is that happening in North Dakota?
Remember, we only hear about the times the cops found something, not all the times they unlawfully search someone and find nothing, and the searched individual goes on their merry way just glad they didn't get a ticket or something.
When the cops make things like illegal searches common practice -- and I think we have to assume that's the case in North Dakota given all the suppressed evidence of late - not only are law-abiding citizens hurt but, but real criminals get let off the hook.
Do better, cops.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Listen to his Plain Talk Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.