Even with nothing to hide, driver’s shouldn’t be subjected to invasive searches

NMA E-Newsletter #255: Dangerous Business

By John Bowman, NMA Communications Director

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (Part 1: The Fellowship of the Ring)

I love this quote, and I think it has as much meaning in our world today as it did back in Middle Earth. As I read the news these days, I’m constantly reminded of how dangerous it is to leave your house, hop into your car and drive to your destination. Dangerous not only to your health, your civil rights and your pocket book, but to your basic human dignity as well.

The first story that got me thinking about all of this involves New Mexico driver David Eckert, who was stopped by police for what he thought was a routine traffic violation. It turned out to be anything but routine. When Eckert stepped out of his vehicle, a police officer became suspicious because he noticed Eckert appeared to be clenching his buttocks, a sure sign he was concealing drugs. Officers obtained a search warrant and transported Eckert to a nearby medical center.

Over the next 14 hours, Eckert was subjected to involuntary X-rays, multiple anal exams, three enemas and ultimately a colonoscopy in which he received anesthesia—all against his will. No drugs were found, but the hospital did bill Eckert for all of the degrading procedures he had to endure.

He has since filed a federal lawsuit against multiple parties, including officers who the lawsuit says were involved in the stop. Some may dismiss this as an isolated incident. It makes no difference. Besides, it may not be an isolated incident as two other New Mexico drivers have come forward with similar disturbing stories.

Police assert that Eckert had concealed drugs in this way previously, although no official record corroborating this claim can be found. Eckert’s attorney acknowledges her client’s past history with drugs but says this does not justify the treatment he received. Nothing can.

The second story that got me worked up happened in Fort Worth, Texas. Random drivers along a busy street were diverted into a parking lot and asked to submit to “voluntary” breath tests and to provide cheek swabs and blood samples. Drivers were offered $10 for a cheek swab and $50 for a blood sample.

This so-called study on the prevalence of impaired driving was conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) using a third party research firm as well as off-duty Fort Worth police officers. While officials claimed participation was “100 percent voluntary,” drivers reported that they felt “trapped” and had no choice but to pull in and submit to these searches.

Drivers were told they would not be forced to give any samples, but the fine print of the consent form disclosed that their breath was tested by “passive alcohol sensor readings before the consent process has been completed.”

The sad part of all of this, aside from the trapping and tricking of innocent motorists, is that there are no reports of drivers opting out. The roadblock was designed to make participation appear compulsory, even though it wasn’t. Again, this is not an isolated case. Similar roadblocks occurred in Alabama during summer, and NHTSA is conducting such trials in 30 cities around the country, although we can find no mention of what those cities are.

Make no mistake, the purpose of this “study” is to gauge public acceptance of increasingly intrusive DUI screening of drivers. A compliant public will only hasten the widespread adoption of such measures. To fight back, citizens must know and assert their constitutional rights. The simple question “am I being detained” repeated often enough during one of these roadblocks could protect an innocent driver from “dangerous business,” to borrow from Tolkien.

The hackneyed response to these concerns is always, “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear, so what’s the big deal?” That’s the wrong question, posed by those who seek to justify ever greater control over our lives. David Eckert quite literally had nothing to hide, and look what happened to him.

The real question is what kind of society do we want to live in? One that can trap and trick us, or subject us to the most inhumane treatment imaginable?  Or one in which we can step onto the road without the fear of being swept off.


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