MINOT, N.D. — By all appearances, cops in North Dakota are routinely violating the Fourth Amendment and its protections against "unreasonable searches and seizures."
Let me give you some examples.
Last year, in a case originating in Stutsman County, North Dakota District Court Judge Jay Schmitz suppressed, as evidence supporting criminal charges, some 500 pounds of marijuana seized by law enforcement.
In an epic ruling — one in which the judge warned against "the dangers of turning a blind eye to official abuses of our fundamental freedoms in the name of a "war on drugs"— Schmitz smacked down law enforcement's justification for the stop resulting in the seizure.
A justification which amounted to a lengthy description of how odd the driver's scrupulous adherence to traffic laws was.
The cops argued that the driver of the car had a "suspiciously tight" grip on the steering wheel at the 10-and-2 position you may remember from driver's ed class.
Slovenly driving habits are what's needed to avoid inviting an unconstitutional search by the cops.
A second case from Stutsman County last year saw nearly 200 pounds of marijuana suppressed as evidence, again due to Fourth Amendment issues.
The local cops did say they'd still try to seize property from the defendants, despite the collapse of the criminal charges, through the civil asset forfeiture process.
A nice consolation prize for them, I guess.
Just recently, a federal magistrate in a third case, again from 2018, has recommended the suppression of drug evidence — about 65 pounds of marijuana and methamphetamine — again because of search and seizure issues.
This time, the cop detained the drivers for an unconstitutional length of time after another dubious traffic stop for rigidly correct driving. In the judge’s opinion, the cop was filibustering to get either consent to a search or a drug dog on the scene.
You may be thinking to yourself that the defendants in each of these cases did have drugs on them, so where's the harm?
For one, violating the constitution is not an effective way to convict criminals.
For two, these are just the cases we hear about. We usually only notice government abuse in matters related to illegal activity, prompting some to think constitutional protections are just technicalities standing between criminals and justice.
How many innocent citizens, for each potentially guilty one, are being unconstitutionally stopped, detained, or searched and then released?
We don't know. People finding themselves in that situation are probably just grateful to have been let go. I have flagged for you three cases from just last year. That’s just what I’ve noticed.
There are certainly more.
These sorts of unconstitutional stops and searches are probably happening every week.
Myopia is a part of it. A feeling among cops that the ends justify the means.
Quotas are likely another explanation. Law enforcement denies their existence, yet in 2015 I used open records laws to obtain North Dakota Highway Patrol emails setting arrest number "goals" for charges ranging from speeding to drug offenses.
Cops tasked with arrest "goals" might start to think the Fourth Amendment is merely a suggestion and not the supreme law of the land.
Whatever the cause, these transgressions have to stop. Maybe it’s time for the cops to pay for the legal fees of those whose rights they violate.
Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Listen to his Plain Talk Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.