Every so often, some cop comes up with a boneheaded idea that is destined to make the lot of us look like would-be tyrants on a power trip. I would like to think that, in most cases, this is done with the best of intentions — despite poor judgment. What troubles me more than boneheaded moves is when a police officer decides to go and write his own version of constitutional law. This is made even worse when the officer is a top administrator.
In the Northeast Arkansas town of Paragould, Police Chief Todd Stovall has found his community plagued with a higher than usual crime rate; at least statistically speaking. It seems that crime in Paragould is higher than the national average and Stovall claims his citizens are scared. Stovall’s answer is to start a new street crimes unit, one that will patrol the streets of this community of 26,000 on foot, in SWAT gear, and bearing AR-15 assault rifles slung around their necks. According to Stovall, this unit will confront anyone out walking and make them identify themselves. Sounds scary right? That’s because for most Americans, having a SWAT team lurking in the neighborhood, poised to make you identify yourself on a Sunday evening stroll, is downright frightful!
Stovall takes things a step further. He says this team will not only get out and identify anyone out walking but if someone comply with the request for identification, they could be arrested for ‘obstructing government operations.’ This is a charge that is commonly used in Arkansas against anyone who refuses to identify him/her self or misidentifies themselves when legally ordered to provide identification. In order to be a legitimate investigation, however, there has to be at least reasonable suspicion present to even justify the temporary seizure of a persons liberty. Stovall claims that the fact his town’s crime rate is high is reasonable suspicion enough.
Let’s look at something that would amount to reasonable suspicion to get a better understanding of what the police must have to stop and identify you against your will. Imagine its 2:00 A.M., and you are on patrol as a police officer. You venture into a shopping center that has been closed since 10:00 P.M. and will not reopen until normal business hours. Furthermore, there have been actual documented cases of commercial burglaries in the area. You’ve located a person loitering near one of those closed businesses. Are you justified to make them identify them self to you? Yes, you would have satisfied the requirement of reasonable suspicion to stop this person, compel them to identify them self in the course of your investigation. After all, there are few legitimate reasons for this person to be in the area when these businesses are closed so you can reasonably believe that a crime either has or is about to take place and that this person is worthy of further investigation. On the other hand, if I am out jogging or walking my dog down the sidewalks of town at any time of day or night and such circumstances are not present, no reasonable suspicion exist to deprive me of my liberty, for even a moment. You, as a police officer, can request that I talk to you in what are commonly referred to as a consensual encounters but if I ignore you, or tell you I don’t want to talk, then you are left with no choice but to let me be.
What Stovall is suggesting is that because his town’s crime rate is higher than he deems acceptable, he has this same level of justification to stop anyone walking in the town and he doesn’t care if they are just walking their dog. In a newspaper article in the Paragould Daily Press, Stovall is quoted as saying the statistics actually justify the even more stringent level of probable cause. Probable cause usually exists when there is a belief that a crime has been or is being committed and that a particular person(s) committed that crime. For anyone in law enforcement administration to say that statistics alone justify probable cause to stop random pedestrians is laughable.
If I were an attorney in Northeast Arkansas, I would be literally salivating at the Christmas gift Stovall was wrapping for me. For the sake of the average taxpayer, pedestrian or just someone passing through Paragould, let’s hope someone gets through to Stovall and gets him to rethink his strategy. A lesson in constitutional law might just be the best gift someone could give Stovall this holiday season.
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