Maybe it was her "P.U.N.K. Keeping kids on the street" bumper sticker, which mocks the D.A.R.E anti-drug program slogan, or her fire-engine-red hair, or more legitimately, the burned-out taillight on her 1994 Olds that prompted a Dallas police officer to pull over Traci Davis.
The 25-year-old software analyst says she gets stopped often by police, once or twice a month, mostly in the suburbs. So she was not surprised about this particular stop, which happened roughly three months ago near the corner of Stemmons Freeway and Mockingbird Lane as Davis was heading to work.
"I was mad because I'd just gotten a speeding ticket the month before," says Davis, a Denton resident whose criminal record begins and ends with that single moving violation. "He tells me he's gonna need to see my driver's license and registration... Then he comes back and says, 'I need to search your car,'" she recalls.
"I'm scared of police officers even if I'm not doing anything wrong," she says. "I figured I'm automatically guilty of something if I refused. I don't know what he's gonna do. And he was very forceful. He didn't speak to me. He kind of barked orders, waving his flashlight around as he spoke."
So Davis says she let the officer rummage through the pile of clothes littering the backseat, which seemed to her to be his main concern. "Of course there was nothing there," she says. In the end, the officer gave her no ticket or warning, even though Davis says she asked for something in writing so she could explain to her boss why she was 30 minutes late.
The details of the stop cannot be confirmed; Davis has no records, nor did she retain the names of the two officers who detained her. But this alleged incident, and talk of others like it, has the Dallas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union concerned about whether Dallas police and other area departments are using intimidating tactics to obtain motorists' consent for searches of their cars.
"When the question [asking for permission to search] sounds more like an order, in a very authoritative tone of voice, or maybe the officer's hand is resting on his weapon, most people feel they really have no option," says Rick Lannoye, a spokesman for the Dallas ACLU chapter.
Lannoye met in May with Assistant Chief Randy Hampton and came away with an agreement that the department would issue a new training bulletin and produce a training video about obtaining consent for these roadside searches.
"What we are doing is reissuing a roll-call bulletin reminding them that a person can give you consent for a warrantless search, but it has to be voluntary," says department spokesman Chris Gilliam. "It has to be very clear, 'May I search your car?' We train that if the answer is, 'No, I don't want you to search,' that is not enough probable cause to do a search...If it's a traffic stop, and the officer writes you a ticket, business is done at that point."
Gilliam says the department has no reason to believe that officers aren't following those guidelines, and there are checks built into the system to weed out abuses. "If the person refuses, and the officer hauls them to jail, the jail sergeant is gong to kick back that shaky arrest. If it goes further, you have the DA's office and judges. Quite frankly, we have not been seeing a lot of this. We haven't gotten complaints."
Still, he says the department saw fit to reissue its standards, which comply with the current state of the law for lawful searches and seizures. Under that law, officers are not required to explain to the detained individuals that they have a constitutional right to refuse the search.
Lannoye says people who are pulled over for minor traffic infractions often are asked a lot of detailed questions about where they have been and where they are going, and people will give in to a search as a way to end the stop. "I know firsthand," he says. "My sons and I were stopped by a [Department of Public Safety] officer on I-35 last year." The ostensible reason for the stop was one of his sons was not wearing a seat belt, he recalls. But he says the trooper asked questions about his work, what he was carrying in the car and his itinerary, including how far south the family had traveled. Then the trooper asked to search the car.
"It was pretty clear to me this was a drug [interdiction] stop. My oldest son has a goatee. There's three males in a car heading north on I-35. We suspect there's a lot of profiling going on, not just on race alone. So I went ahead and answered a few questions and then said, 'Look, these questions have nothing to do with seat belt safety. If you have a problem here, I want to know what it is.'" Lannoye says the officer relented, wrote the seat belt ticket and let them go.
At the very least, Lannoye says he would like to increase public awareness of citizens' rights to refuse to be interrogated on the side of the road or have their cars searched during stops for minor moving violations.
"I'd like to see something like the Miranda warning put into law, but we didn't get very far with that," he says, referring to the notice given those taken into custody concerning their rights. An ACLU-backed bill on the subject was introduced in the last session of the Texas Legislature but did not get voted out of committee.
As for Davis, she says she has toned down the number of pagan and punk stickers on her car, such as the one showing a pagan fish eating a Christian fish.
She says she hasn't gone so far as to give up her nose ring or mimic what appears to be a trend in some parts of the city: pasting official-looking badges and pro-police stickers onto the windshield as a sort of hopeful inoculation against traffic stops. Instead, she says, she joined the ACLU.
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