Monday, July 20, 2009

Letter to the chief, Mk II

Chief Hromadka: I understand that you are undoubtedly a very busy man, but I also understand that ultimate responsibility for the policies of your department rest solely with you. I appreciate you having someone respond to my concerns in a timely manner, which is almost unheard of when dealing with government entities, but there are still several concerns I have regarding that traffic stop I wrote to you about on Saturday afternoon. It's my understanding that Lt. Traylor sent you a courtesy copy of his reply to me, in case there are any questions about it.

My minor disagreement regarding the "reasonableness" of stopping someone for drinking from an insulated bottle in plain view of a police officer notwithstanding, there are some very serious concerns I have with Lt. Traylor's explanation of why I was followed for almost a mile prior to being pulled over. It seems the safest possible place to pull me over would have been into the empty church parking lot a tenth of a mile away, where no doubt plenty of evidence could have been gathered if I was, in fact, intoxicated while driving my vehicle. It also had plenty of wide-open space that wasn't crowded by pedestrians and vehicles, like the Buc-ees parking lot was. If there was a fear that I may have been a safety hazard to other motorists, why was I allowed to travel for almost a mile and turn my vehicle into a two-ton projectile before I was pulled over? If it really is public safety, as opposed to generating citations, it seems absurd that I be allowed to be a danger to so many others for so long.

I'm also very worried about the fact that the city of Lake Jackson is keeping a database of personal information on people who don't live in Lake Jackson (or, for that matter, people who actually DO live in Lake Jackson). The state has a very well-maintained database of information on people living in the state of Texas, including names and addresses of residence. I really can't see as to how providing a home telephone number or place of employment would be pertinent, seeing as to how neither myself nor of my immediate family works or lives in LJ. For reasons of being "identified for criminal activity", such things really make me feel like I'm being treated like a matter how much anyone may say I'm not being treated as such.

As for being allowed to refuse such information, perhaps this is something your officers should be made aware of. While I was, in fact, allowed to leave the scene without providing this information, it was not as simple as "I don't think it's pertinent, and I want to leave". I can't help but thinking it was readily apparent that I didn't want to provide such information, and yet I was still detained while Officer McCullough was in possession of my driver's license...long after it was determined that I was, in fact, drinking bottled water.

Contrary to Lt. Traylor's belief, an arrest is a seizure of ones' person, and such unreasonable seizures do happen to be illegal in this nation as guaranteed under the 4th Amendment. Terry v. Ohio states that whenever a police officer detains a person for whatever reason, he has "seized" that person (see also, US v. Ramstad). Florida v. Royer states that an "investigative stop" must last no longer than the amount of time necessary to determine that a crime was or was not committed. US v. McKneely states that a traffic stop cannot be considered "consensual" if the officer is still in possession of the driver's pertinent paperwork (in my case, my driver's license), and that any detention beyond what is necessary to run my license for warrants is considered a de facto arrest. My attorney concurs, and I'm certain that yours would, as well.

Officer McCullough's suspicions that I may have been consuming alcohol while driving may have, in fact, been warranted. However, one of the first things she did upon approaching my vehicle was to ask me if I was drinking a beer. Aside from her mentioning the "reasonable suspicion" of seeing a bottle in a paper bag, after I very bluntly informed her that it was not a beer, there was never any further discussion or inspection of my beverage. There was never any questions about my driving habits, whether I was in possession of any weapons or illicit substances in the car, or any questions regarding possible involvement in a crime. All questioning, beyond the original question of the beverage in my cupholder, was related merely to my personal information.

As soon as it was determined that my beverage was not a cold beer, and that my license and insurance was current and valid, there should not have been any reason whatsoever for my detention to continue. As I see it, further detention constitutes a de facto arrest (an illegal one, at that), and should never have taken place. The moment it became reasonably apparent that I did not wish to answer such questions about my personal business, I should have been sent on my way. I use the words "reasonably apparent" for the same reason that "reasonable suspicion" is used by your officers...while there was no concrete proof that I was actually drinking a beer, a person would (according to your officers) REASONABLY SUSPECT that I may have been doing so. At the same time, while I did not actually specifically state that I did not want to answer any further questions, anyone would have been able to REASONABLY ascertain that I was not happy in the situation and did not wish to give any further information. One would REASONABLY think that such situations would be met with a "drive safely, sir, and here's your driver's license", as opposed to "Well, I'll just get my corporal to come down here and tell you why I need to know where you work." and "I remember you from high school. I'm sure this isn't the first time you've been pulled over.", and being made to wait in a crowded parking lot until the corporal decides to not show up...especially seeing as how doing exactly as Officer McCullough did just so happens to be a violation of my constitutional rights at this point, regardless of whatever justification she may have had for initiating the traffic stop. The officer had a legal right to run my license after such a stop, but the contact went much further than that, and this is the sole reason I am taking the time to write this letter.

I'm not writing you this letter because I harbor any silly ideas of suing over civil rights violations, or that I expect any kind of formal apology. It's just that I am a free man living in a supposedly free society, and I demand to be treated as such. I do not merely expect, but DEMAND, to be treated as a free man in a free society. I also demand that those I pay (via my tax dollars) to enforce the law also follow the law. Believe it or not, I actually do want to be able to drive down the street and not live in fear of the officer driving behind me. I want to be able to say "Hey, I know that cop...he/she is one of the good guys!". I want to be able to know that if there were ever any situation where I'd need to contact the Lake Jackson Police Department, I could rest assured that I can do so without being treated as if I am a criminal. For far too long, I have seen the worst of the worst regarding this county's municipal police forces. I know there are good officers out there, but every encounter I seem to have with them seems to make me feel like they are few and far between.

I live in this county, work in this county, and conduct a good deal of my personal business in this county...and that includes, obviously, driving through a small portion of your jurisdiction on my way too and from work. I have a strong desire to see this not escalate any further, but I must also reiterate that I will never surrender my rights as a free man. I also will never accept that it is in the interest of "the public safety" to do so, nor will I allow myself to be coerced into doing so, as long as I am able to make the choice. I just really didn't like being put into that position, and it's not right that a public servant should attempt to do so.

Thank you for taking the time to read this, and I hope that officer and citizen can both come to a better understanding and appreciation for each other out of this situation. If there is something I am still not understanding about the circumstances regarding the events of this traffic stop that you can enlighten me on, I would greatly appreciate the provision of further details.

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