About April 2019
Cars are indelibly linked to the American idea of freedom. Free travel, new opportunities, and matters of personal style are all a part of the mythology of the automobile. But the arrival of the horseless carriage also brought a crucial shift in law enforcement procedures, one that gave police vastly more discretion to stop ordinary citizens, search their belongings, and seize anything incriminating that they found. Automotive searches have become standard procedures, often initially prompted by as little as a broken headlight or a failure to signal.
Not only that, but there is strong evidence that discretionary searches following a routine traffic stop are administered in racially biased ways. Early 20th-century police knew well that they had to exercise some discretion, given the proliferation of confusing and constantly changing traffic laws from one jurisdiction to the next, and the ways in which criminals made eager use of the new technology. But giving discretion meant opening the doors to pervasive but manifestly unfair policing—quite the opposite of freedom.
Our lead essayist this month is University of Iowa Professor Sarah A. Seo; she has written a just-published book called Policing the Open Road: How Cars Transformed American Freedom that addresses these topics. She looks at the history of the automobile in American law — and how it gave rise to new powers for law enforcement officers, while subjecting ordinary citizens to greater police power than they had previously known in the land of the free.
Joining her to discuss this month are three other experts in criminal justice: Clark Neily, Vice President for Criminal Justice at the Cato Institute; Fordham University Law Professor John Pfaff; and R Street Institute Senior Fellow in Criminal Justice Lars Trautman. Comments are open for one month, and we welcome letters to the editor as well. We hope you’ll join us for a stimulating conversation.