Over at Ethics Alarms, Jack Marshall had a piece a few weeks ago (sorry to be so slow… I got a story up on the Facebook page even before Jack’s article, but it’s somewhere on the far side of understatement to say that I’m way behind on my writing) about an elderly couple pulled over by the cops for having a decal of a marijuana leaf on their car. Trouble was, it wasn’t: it was a logo for the Ohio State Buckeyes… you know, that university in Columbus, Ohio that usually fields pretty good sports teams?
Jack is right to chide the journalists involved for not pointing out the obvious 1st amendment issue involved, namely that it wouldn’t have mattered if it had been a marijuana leaf, but I think there’s something else at play here. Fact is, although, like Joe Blundo of the Columbus Dispatch (but unlike a lot of the more national coverage: USA Today, for example), I’d have mentioned the obvious unconstitutionality of the stop, I’d have probably led my story with the colossal stupidity of the officers involved.
Maybe it’s because I’m a college sports fan, with a beloved niece at Ohio State. Maybe it’s because I’m of a certain age, and those of my generation are pretty likely to know what does and does not resemble a marijuana leaf. Maybe it’s because I’m the son of a PhD in botany. Maybe it’s that for the stop to have made any sense (completely apart from its illegality), we’d have to believe that drug kingpins are interested in advertising their business: “Hey, over here. I’m running a dope ring!” In other words, that even if that logo were a marijuana leaf, and even if the 1st amendment didn’t exist, the cops would still be idiots.
But I’m troubled by the implications here. We assume that cops—not all of them, of course, but more than a few proverbial “bad apples”—are stupid. There was even that court case a few years back in which New London, CT successfully defended their right to deny employment opportunities to those who score too high on IQ tests. And the string of idiocies perpetrated by the police, especially with respect to pot, extends so far, both quantitatively and qualitatively, into the realm of the wackadoodle that a gaggle of uniformed mouth-breathers in Tennessee just adds to the collection.
One of the commenters on Jack’s essay points us to a Radley Balko article which enumerates some (frighteningly enough, the list, long and horrifying as it is, isn’t comprehensive) of the “oops” moments in the War on Drugs:
The list of things for which police have waged often violent drug raids after mistaking them for marijuana is a long one. It includes (but likely is not limited to) elderberry bushes, tomato plants (several times), yellow bell pepper plants, umbrella leaf, ragweed, okra, hibiscus, kenaf plants, daisies, the scent of moss, the scent of a skunk, and a plastic plant purchased for a pet lizard's planetarium.
By my count, there have also been at least three incidents in which drug cops have mistakenly raided the home of a current or former mayor.
But there remains something strangely comforting about stories about stupid police officers. They allow us to pass the blame to the incompetent few.
Unfortunately, this strategy not only allows but indeed encourages us to ignore the more systemic problems. Obviously, there are many wonderful policemen and –women who really do believe in the whole “serve and protect” mantra. Too many cops, though, are as arrogant as they are stupid: they went into the business because they couldn’t get a better job, and because they get to swagger around town wearing sidearms and a smirk that aptly conveys their bestial pseudo-superiority.
I’m not talking about the one who stops you for speeding and exaggerates the offense. I’m talking about the one who treats you like a criminal for reporting possible evidence of a crime, who ignores obvious violations when committed by like-minded folks but manufactures reasons to harass those who disagree (whose bumper sticker supports the wrong candidate, for example), whose every action seems a desperate and ultimately futile attempt to compensate for an infinitesimal sex organ.
These officers—a noxious admixture of hubris and boneheadedness—have always been with us. The difference is that they, and more specifically their tactics, are increasingly accepted. At the macro level, we get the greatest single assault on civil liberties since the HUAC Committee: the PATRIOT Act, born of over-reaction and continued by craven capitulation.
At the micro level, the absurdities would be laughable except for the real damage to real people. Pick your story: New York City’s “stop and frisk” policy, which de facto defines suspicious activity as being young, male, and either black or Hispanic; the myriad attacks by police on #Occupy protesters; the jackass transportation cop who killed a suspect who was already immobilized; the idiot with a badge who arrested MC Hammer for the apparent crime of sitting in a car while black.
What all this translates into is that cops increasingly think they’re both invincible and unaccountable. Trouble is, this sentiment is slowly but inexorably becoming accurate. And here is where I must diverge from Jack’s analysis. While placing more blame elsewhere, he also chastises the victim of the harassment, Bonnie Jonas-Boggioni, for not being more confrontational with the idiot cops, for not saying,
“It is none of your business, Officer! The First Amendment gives us the right to display any picture, design or message on our car that we choose, and if you want a civil rights law suit that will bring even more embarrassment to your department and community than the fact that you can’t tell an Ohio State decal from a pot-head manifesto, I suggest you keep doing what you’re doing. Otherwise, back off and let us go on our way.”
I’d offer a couple defenses of their conduct, however. First, this is a cop incompetent enough to mistake a buckeye for a marijuana leaf and to think that someone displaying even the latter wouldn’t have the absolute legal right to do so. Such a sorry excuse for an American, let alone a police officer, is likely to be precisely the kind of armed, arrogant and testosto-moronic jerk who would think himself within his rights to beat up a couple of senior citizens who had the audacity to question his absolute authority to be an assclown.
Secondly, the level of brain-melting inanity represented by the traffic stop is indeed flabbergasting, even for a Tennessee cop. The most difficult questions I have to answer as a college professor aren’t the hard ones, the ones which require nuance or which push the boundaries of my own expertise (“I don’t know” is a much under-utilized response in my profession). No, the hard questions are the stupid ones—“Wasn’t Hitler a Communist?” “There were black people in America in the 1770s?” “How long did the Thirty Years War last?” Sometimes these questions are asked by people who don’t belong in college. More often, they’re posed by bright enough students who either aren’t thinking or who took high school history from the assistant football coach. But it takes a second to recover from the idiocy of the question, and I confess to sometimes being flustered by the ludicrousness of it all. Sometimes I consider Kafka a cockeyed optimist.
Thirdly, Ms. Jonas-Boggioni did indeed defy the “advice” of Officer Idiot to remove the decal “permanently”: “I didn’t take it off…. This little old lady is no drug dealer.” The threshold for civil disobedience seems to have lowered a little since I was a lad, and defiance comes a little cheaper. But when you’re when you’re bellied up to the cantina bar, sometimes it’s wiser to leave the droid outside and just marvel at the view.