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Are Cops *Legally* Allowed to Pull You Over for Good Driving?

You are driving down the road when suddenly, you see a cop behind you.  You aren’t too worried because you haven’t been speeding.

But then the cop car’s lights go on.

cop car

You immediately start wondering what happened.  Is your tail light out?  Did you stop long enough at that stop sign?  Did you break some local rule you don’t know about?

The cop gets out and starts talking to you about some penal code you broke.  He asks if you know what it means.

Then he launches into how it is illegal to drive without a cool treat and hands you an ice cream cone.

Wait, did the cop just pull you over to give you an ice cream cone?!

That’s exactly what was happening in Virginia.  The police decided to reward good drivers by pulling them over and giving them ice cream.

There’s a video of that here:

I’ve heard of these types of stories before.  I’ve thought about how I’d be pretty annoyed at being pulled over for no reason (plus, I can’t eat ice cream), and I’ve wondered how legal these stops are.

I mean, it’s nice to reward someone.  But the police are kind of rewarding people by force.  Once the lights go on, you are required to pull over, whether or not you would actually want ice cream.

I found my answer to that question on the Volokh Conspiracy (a blog on the Washington Post’s website).

Orin Kerr describes what constitutes a legal traffic stop and why these reward-stops aren’t legal:

A lot of these stops are unconstitutional. When the police pull over a car, that’s a Fourth Amendment “seizure” of the driver, any passengers, and everything inside. To justify that seizure, the police need at least some cause either that a driver committed a traffic violation or that a person in the car is involved in a crime or wanted in connection with a serious crime.

Kerr goes on to explain this gets even more problematic if a cop pulls a car over only to realize illegal activity is going on within the vehicle.

Preston Mitchem from the Root points out the difference between “joy” and “relief”.  A lot of these videos are going viral because of how happy the people in the video when they are really just relieved.  You are not seeing the face of someone so excited to get ice cream.  You are seeing the face of someone relieved not to have a run-in with the police.

So in other words, the police are causing fear when they pull over the individuals.  Then the individuals are relieved when it’s just for ice cream.

I’m not trying to say these stops aren’t well-intentioned–they appear to be and the cops clearly want to make people happy.  The police themselves appear to be sweet (as does the ice cream).

But these types of stops, I think, cause fear.  And are technically sometimes illegal.

What do you think about them?

About Jeanne Marie Hoffman

Former bartender, still a geek. One equal part each cookies, liberty, football, music, travel, libations. Stir vigorously. +Jeanne Marie Hoffman Jeanne on Twitter

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13 comments

  1. I see it as the police attempting to earn good will within the community – Great is theory but not so sure I like the execution.

  2. No thank you Mr. Robocop. Leave me to my day and keep your product of torture and factory farming to yourself. But yes, “Fruit from a poisonous tree”. If they find anything illegal after making that initial illegal stop, they are SOL. We always hear that police are overwhelmed, so forget the public ice cream PR and go respond to actually calls for assistance.

  3. I’m fairly sure that in the case of the video above, the person was pulled over for a minor traffic infraction. I think they are only doing this to people who have actually done something that they could legally stop them for.

  4. I practice criminal law. If I was the city attorney for the police department, I would advise them against this because they don’t have reasonable suspicion of a criminal act that is needed to enforce a stop. However, if the department insisted on having a public outreach program (which this clearly is), my advise would be to wait for any infraction before pulling over a “good” driver. Something chicken shit like changing lanes without signaling. Or going a mile over the speed limit. ANYTHING. That way they have a defense in federal court when they get sued for violating someone’s civil rights.

  5. I was about to agree with you until I watched the video which states that each car was pulled over for a minor driving infraction, so it seems they were aware of the legality of their action and therefore had the right to pull them over, and just chose to let them off with an ice cream as well as a warning.

  6. I hate them, especially as a black man. I (and many black people) get anxiety just seeing police lights, even when you’ve done everything right. I hope cops stop doing this.

  7. you are an idiot and further dividing the country with this ignorant article.

  8. With all the Black Lives Matter talk in the news, I hear black people talk about their fear of cops as if it’s unique to them.

    When you’re driving and see a cop in your rear-view mirror, you naturally become scared. It has nothing to do with your skin color.

  9. Stupid idea in a country blossoming with stupid ideas.

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