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June 2007
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Law enforcement lying and stealing — SOP

This is a pretty amazing story.

Ascension Alverez-Tejeda and his girlfriend drove up to a
traffic light. As the light turned green, the car in front of them
lurched forward, then stalled. Alverez-Tejeda managed to
stop in time, but the truck behind him tapped his bumper. As
Alverez-Tejeda got out to inspect the damage, two officers
pulled up in a police cruiser and arrested the truck driver for
drunk driving. The officers got Alverez-Tejeda and his girl-
friend to drive to a nearby parking lot, leave the keys in the
car and get into the cruiser for processing. Just then, out of
nowhere, someone snuck into their car and drove off with it.
As the couple stood by in shock, the police jumped into their
cruiser and chased after the car thief with sirens blaring. The
police then returned to the parking lot, told the couple that the
thief had gotten away and dropped them off at a local hotel.
The whole incident was staged.

Everyone mentioned above except Alverez-Tejeda and his girlfriend were police (or working for them). It was all an elaborate ruse to search the car without tipping off the drug conspirators.
This was a case that went to the 9th Circuit Court on whether this was an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment, and the court ruled that it was not.
It’s certainly an interesting case, and a little disturbing, but it’s not the huge Fourth Amendment debacle that a few are making it out to be.
What some commenters online are failing to notice is that both parties agreed that the government in this case had more than enough probable cause (from wiretaps, etc) to legally search the car. This was not a fishing expedition in the sense that we’re used to examining. The only question was how they went about getting the car to do the search. So the court was examining whether the nature of the seizure (pretending to steal the car instead of just taking it) was unreasonable, and ruled it wasn’t.
And quite frankly, compared to the violence of home invasion as part of the drug war, this ruse involving a tap of the bumper seems less of a constitutional concern to me.
This doesn’t meant that I like it. Just that I don’t think the 9th Circuit was wrong in this case, given the current weakness of the Fourth Amendment.
However, I also think that law enforcement should consider carefully the ramifications of their actions. They probably considered this operation to be a crafty or cute idea (and I can imagine the high-fives afterwards with the car “thief.”) But what does it say to the public that they serve?
One of the serious repercussions of the drug war is the fact that, in the eyes of the public, law enforcement has become a force to be feared, not trusted. An agency of lies and corruption that will take your friends away. That breakdown in the perception of law enforcement’s status with the public makes it easier for violent crime to exist, and is destructive to communities.
Every time that law enforcement uses techniques such as lying and stealing as part of their standard operating procedure, they drive a further wedge into their relationship with their employers and feed the societal sickness we are experiencing.
___
Note that this thought was articulated by Kozinski within the 9th circuit opinion:

If people can’t trust the representations of government officials, the phrase “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” will become even more terrifying.

Full 9th Circuit opinion here (pdf). Articles at Wired Blog, Volokh, Daily Kos.

[Thanks, Tom]

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