A middle-aged couple driving through Tennessee on their way home from a funeral were pulled over by a police officer who mistook their Ohio Buckeye bumper stickers for marijuana leaves.
The Columbus Dispatch reports:
Two officers approached, one on each side of the car.
“They were very serious,” [the driver, Bonnie Jonas-Boggioni] said. “They had the body armor and the guns.” […]
“What are you doing with a marijuana sticker on your bumper?” [an officer] asked her.
She explained that it is actually a Buckeye leaf decal, just like the ones that Ohio State players are given to put on their helmets to mark good plays. […]
The officer then explained that someone from outside his jurisdiction — apparently another officer — had spotted the leaf sticker and thought it might indicate that the car was carrying marijuana, Jonas-Boggioni said. […]
The reporter quoted a spokeswoman for the West Tennessee Drug Task Force, who accurately explained that a marijuana sticker is clearly not a sufficient reason to stop a car. To justify a stop, police officers must meet the standard of “reasonable suspicion” that an individual has committed a crime or violation. And a sticker – a classic example of First Amendment expression and nothing more – is nowhere close to reasonable suspicion that the couple were drug traffickers.
This same type of flimsy evidence has justified the hundreds of thousands of “stop-and-frisks” applied arbitrarily and discriminatorily in New York City and elsewhere. A court recently found that police officers in the Bronx lacked that necessary reasonable suspicion for their frequent stops of individuals outside residences for alleged trespassing.
What’s particularly troubling about this incident is that police did not simply spot the stickers in the course of their route and stop the car. They went out of their way to respond to a call reporting “marijuana” stickers and sought that car out. Had the stickers actually portrayed marijuana leaves, and not a football symbol, the officers’ reaction might have been different, although the lack of reasonable suspicion would have been exactly the same. And while the inconvenience of a stop may seem minor, federal district judge Shira A. Scheindlin articulates in her recent stop-and-frisk decision why unconstitutional stops — in and of themselves a harm subject to Fourth Amendment protection — have increasingly “dire and long-lasting” consequences:
The stakes of “field interrogation” by the police have dramatically risen since Terry [v. Ohio, which established the legal standard for stop and frisks,] was decided in 1968. The use of incarceration has increased, sentences have grown, the threat of lengthy incarceration has created new incentives to plead guilty, and the collateral consequences of a conviction — on employment, housing, access to government programs, and even the right to vote or serve on a jury — have become more common and more severe.