Terry Stops

November 7, 2011

The Fourth Amendment is supposed to stop the government from subjecting us to unreasonable searches and seizures. It was, and is, a revolutionary idea. Governments love to search people and will do so whenever given the slightest excuse. Once they start they never stop. Witness what you go through at an airport. Or entering a courthouse.

Some people are naive enough to think that Courts are going to protect your Constitutional rights. That may have been true at one time with the Warren Court which gave us Miranda warnings and other procedural restrictions on police behavior, but no more. Especially in Michigan. Michigan courts are commonly thought to be rubber stamps for the Prosecution and their decisions don’t do much to remove that impression. For example…

The U.S. Supreme Court in a case called Terry vs. Ohio made a small exception to the restrictions on the police searching citizens. This was back in 1968 when Courts actually made an effort to protect citizens Constitutional rights. They said that when a policeman observed “suspicious behavior” that wasn’t enough to constitute “probable cause” that a crime was being committed, [what it takes to make an arrest,] they could investigate and conduct a “pat down” search of someone for weapons for their own safety. They said this was “less intrusive than an arrest and search.”

Of course the police immediately began to abuse what came to be known as “Terry stops.” In the November 1st Detroit Free Press Leonard Pitts has written about New York’s use of Terry stops. Since he writes in the Free Press naturally the story has a racial twist. Half of New York’s population is black or Hispanic yet they make up 85% of those stopped. Drugs and weapons are only found in 2% of those stops.

Pitts didn’t have to go to New York to find an abuse of Terry. It can be found right here in Michigan. Making it worse, the Michigan Court of Appeals with their usual fear of being tagged “soft on crime” [they’re elected] has made it worse.

In a recent case called People v. Sanders, the police stopped a car based on a tip that someone was going to purchase cocaine. The pulled the car over, allegedly for speeding, and conducted a Terry search of the driver. They found he was carrying money. They then “requested” that he be held in a patrol car and handcuffed him in the back seat. The Court of Appeals incredibly found that he hadn’t been arrested and that this was one of those minor “inconviences” that Terry talks about. He was being “briefly detained.”

OK, you’re saying “but the guy was in handcuffs in a police car. That sure sounds like he was under arrest.” Well, that just shows how unsophisticated you are about the law. You see, the Court of Appeals says it’s all right to handcuff him because the State Police have a “policy” of handcuffing people they put in the back of parole cars without a divider.

A “policy”? You can subject someone to an obvious arrest and not call it that because the police made a “policy”? Isn’t this the kind of thing Courts are supposed to protect us from? The Michigan Court of Appeals, our highest Court short of the Supreme Court says it’s acceptable for police to conduct an arrest, complete with handcuffs, and not call it an arrest because they’ve made violation of the 4th Amendment their “policy!” Incredible! These are the people that are supposed to be protecting you, yet they’re willing to distort and stretch the law to incredible lengths to justify obviously illegal behavior by the police. That’s the kind of reasoning that stands between you and the government taking away your rights.

Of course, what can you expect from a Court that makes you walk through a metal detector and be searched to even enter their building? These guys give rubber stamps a bad name.


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