Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Why Primary Offense Expansion Gives Police Too Much Power

Allegheny Radio Corporation's Amanda Mangan reported on Facebook about new traffic laws in Maryland that could affect West Virginia drivers.

She reported that, as of October 1, using a cell phone while driving now is a primary offense.  Like Maryland laws on seat belt usage, this means that officers can pull over drivers if they see them violating the law.  A driver can use his or her phone if pulled over, but not in the travel portion of the roadway.

These changes certainly affect West Virginia drivers in the Eastern Panhandle who frequently use Maryland interstates.

But they can also lead to a wider problem because they expand the scope of probable cause.  A police officer cannot pull a driver over unless they have good reason to suspect a violation of law.  Police need probable cause to satisfy Fourth Amendment requirements that the government not interfere with persons or their effects without good reason.

When states expand the scope of primary offenses, they also unintentionally expand the opportunity for unscrupulous law enforcement officers.  All an officer needs to say to justify pulling a car over is to claim that he or she thought they saw the driver using a cell phone.

The CDC reports that 3,331 drivers in 2011 died in accidents where cell phones were a factor.  That rose by 70 from the year before.  Proponents of expanding primary offense laws claim that they keep people safer from roadway malefactors

But is this worth the inevitable accompaniment of expanding law enforcement's ability to harass citizens at will?

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