The Fourth Amendment Applies to Motorists, Too

I attended a hearing on August 24 before a Dauphin County district justice (magistrate) for a “driving with an expired license charge” against a member of the Independent Gazette team. John drives a car with a big “Ron Paul” sticker on the rear window, as seen in the photo below. One day back in July, as he drove up Interstate 283, he was pulled over by a Pennsylvania State Police trooper. The trooper pulled him over for driving with an expired license. How did he know that? He allegedly randomly ran John’s license plate and found that information in one of the databases to which he had access.


The officer testified that the state police have a policy of running people’s registration plates randomly, and apparently, frequently, to see what they can find out. The district justice appeared familiar with that policy, and also appeared to accept its legality without question.

Accordingly, it is accepted in law enforcement, and in at least some courts, that our police don’t have to see one doing anything unlawful, or violating some safe driving practice, rule, or regulation, but can simply sit and watch cars go by, and decide which ones they want to monitor to see if they can come up with anything for which they can justify turning on their lights, forcing you to stop, and conducting fishing expedition-style inquiries to see if they can find any reason to disrupt your life, and subject you to the criminal process.

Concerns about a developing surveillance state
I believe that is backwards and presents a real danger in this great land of liberty and freedom of ours. We talk about things like the PATRIOT Act, and the dangers that such general encroachments possibly have on lives hypothetically, but this case, whether or not it was a policy specifically permitted by the PATRIOT Act, presents a real-life present example that the “surveillance state” that is at the core of the concerns of those opposed to ceding our liberty to our public officials for the sake of some sense of security.

The ironies of the case are too compelling to not write about, investigate, and even litigate. Among those ironies was that the young police officer, who was just doing what he has been trained to do, and is certainly not individually being cast as any type of villain, spoke with a very distinct Russian accent.

Targeting based on political speech?
There appears to be no reasonable question that John’s license tag was run because of the Ron Paul moniker emblazoned across his rear window, and on his front hood, as well as his “Libertarian” and “muckraker” bumper stickers, though the evidence has not been fully tested in a court of law at this point. There simply appears to be no reasonable way that any police officer can just sit and monitor the plates of every passing vehicle, or even randomly do so. It is probable that John was targeted, like many others out there who may not even know they have been, and followed by a law enforcement officer searching for a reason to have cause to pull him over, and initiate some sort of contact.

In these days of video after video of police routine incidents turning violent, and leading to injuries and deaths, this is something that we simply cannot let pass without further inquiry. Searching someone’s record without probable cause is a Fourth Amendment “search,” and pulling them over under the coercion of the flashing blue and red lights of a police cruiser, occupied by a man with a gun, is a Fourth Amendment “seizure.” That amendment which, as Rand Paul recently pointed out, was at the core of our reasons for separation from the Crown of England, are to be preceded by probable cause, not employed as a means to find probable cause.

I understand, incidentally, that Carly Fiorina’s Hewlett Packard company was instrumental in developing technologies used by Homeland Security and others to implement these kinds of policies and practices, and in the recent Republican debate, Chris Christie essentially ratified his view that security is properly sacrificed for security in this post-9/11 world. We clearly seem to be losing sight of the oft-repeated quote of Ben Franklin that “those who would give up their essential liberty for some temporary security are entitled to neither,” as one iteration of the quote goes.

Chilled speech and self-censoring
Additionally, there is a term in the area of First Amendment jurisprudence that does not necessarily require an actual damage or injury for a violation of a right to expression, e.g., expressing political views on one’s motor vehicle, because the cases protect against the “chilling effect” of any encroachments on our cherished First Amendment freedoms. That is what the issue is here. Because of practices like this in this modern PATRIOT Act world, we need to worry about the way we express ourselves; we have to conform to a rigid set of expectations of how those in power expect that we should behave. It limits our freedom of thought, and our freedom of expression, which limits the sharing of ideas, our innovation, and the way we grow as people and as a society. We now have to think about what we endorse on our cars.

This also leads to the question of what information out there is tied to the driver’s license. Are conceal/carry permits associated with our driver’s licenses? Child support obligations? Are we really living in a world where we give all this away just because we have a business engagement to attend to, or an amusement park to take our children to, or any other of the countless reasons we get in the car and exercise our right to travel? What if John had not pull over immediately? What if John wasn’t driving the car, but you were?

I reached out to John for a comment and he said, “We, as Pennsylvanians, need to become much more engaged in policing policy decisions which directly impinge on our right to travel, as well as other liberties recognized by both our state constitution and federal constitution. Such decisions — and especially those concerning surveillance measures — cannot be relegated solely to law enforcement personnel and legislators.”

Lou Jasikoff, the publisher of the Independent Gazette, added that “the surveillance state is not only alive and well but expands every day. What we permit we endorse. Indiscriminate scanning of license plates, for the sole purpose of finding wrongdoing, is no different from someone coming into your home without a warrant to look for wrongdoings.”

Many people would have just paid the fine, because they don’t have time to take their focus off of what is right in front of them, or to take time away from their jobs that they need to attend to in order to pay the tens of thousands of dollars in interest to the bankers on their 5% mortgages for money created out of thin air, etc., etc., etc., but there are people like John who recognize what liberty and freedom means for all of us, and I’ll be proud to stand beside him as he pursues this huge justice issue over a couple hundred-dollar fine for an offense that many may think he may well be “guilty” of.

There is much to follow here, and more to be developed, but I felt that this matter needs to be addressed now. I hope you all follow it as it proceeds.

  • Andy Ostrowski
  • 2014 candidate for U.S. Congress. Founder of the Pennsylvania Civil Rights Law Network,

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