Posted on Thursday, 27 February 2003
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Police Roadblocks Symbolize Loss of Constitutional Rights

by Bob Sloan


One scene played itself out in dozens of movies and TV programs, most of them old and shot in black-and-white.  Maybe the lack of color is why the images seem to this day stark and vivid, more frightening than any modern, high-dollar special effects.

An innocent party is driving down a road, usually at night, in some unnamed European country and comes upon a roadblock.  Men in gray uniforms ask for "papers" and study them suspiciously, match picture to face, then examine the passengers, maybe ask for their papers as well.  Sometimes the vehicle is allowed to proceed.  Most of the time someone is arrested.

Those roadblock scenes were scary because they represented the totalitarianism against which we Americans stood determined and foursquare, wherever it presented itself, whatever face it wore.  My father and uncles had gone off to war to defeat fascism -- sometimes the uniforms in those black-and-white films were Wermacht -- and my generation knew only that the determination of our leaders kept the Cold War properly chilled  (sometimes the uniforms were Soviet).

We pitied and prayed for those people behind the Iron Curtain who couldn't even drive to town without running the risk of roadblocks.

We gave thanks for the U.S. Constitution and due process, for "presumed innocent," for police forces that stopped people only when there was a reason to do so.

That was then.

This is now:  Just before Thanksgiving the local paper announced that state and local police would do roadside checks over the holiday weekend, with a special interest in whether or not Rowan County drivers were wearing seat belts.

Police also would be looking to see whether child safety seats were properly installed and used, and of course, the officers would be interested in whether drivers were drinking.

I've used the seat belts in whatever vehicle I've driven since they became standard equipment.  Having once read a report which persuasively argued that seat belts prevented the kind of spinal cord injuries that sentence people to life in wheelchairs, I found myself so devoted to seat-belt use that if I drive my pickup 50 yards from my house to the barn, I almost always fasten myself in.  I think everyone ought to use their seat belt and am not slow to nag my wife about using hers.

And, of course, small children ought to be seated in properly installed devices that will protect their fragile selves in the event of an accident.  In the days when my friends were still young enough to be having babies, more than once my gift to the expectant parents was whatever car seat Consumer Reports said was best.

I also don't think anyone ought to drive a vehicle while intoxicated.

But even more strongly, I believe in the concept of "probable cause," the idea that before the police can impede my progress, or investigate me, they need to have some indication that I'm doing or have done something wrong.

When, exactly, did probable cause become obsolete, sufficiently so that any curious pair of police officers can set up a roadblock, ask for papers and, while doing so, fish around for some reason or other to issue a ticket or make an arrest?

In the last six months of 2002, I experienced two such stops:  one very early in the morning as my wife and I returned from visiting a writer's workshop at Hindman, the other at 9 a.m. on U.S. 60 as I drove home after doing errands in town.

In both cases, the officers conducting the stop were courteous to a ridiculous fault, finishing every sentence with the word "sir."  But that was small comfort, knowing as I did that what they really wanted was a reason to write a summons or to arrest me.

Various courts have ruled that by accepting a Kentucky driver's license we give consent for these stops.  On the other hand, nobody ever asked me if it was OK.

Once upon a time, random roadblocks represented the worst of totalitarianism.  Today they're taken for granted.  All of us ought to be seriously embarrassed at what we're tolerating.

columns by Bob Sloan:

Roadblocks  (2/27/2003)

Political Penises  (3/24/2003)
A Good President  (4/24/2003)

Un-Social Discourse  (6/19/2003)
Boone vs Rogers  (7/24/2003)

Boone vs Rogers II  (8/28/2003)
Toy Bugle at Vet Funeral  (3/1/2004)

Forgotten Young Soldiers  (6/14/2004)
Flynts Hard to Beat in Court  (8/08/2004)

Homeland Security?  (12/6/2004)
For Love of Kentucky  (5/02/2005)

I Love Mountains  (02/2006)