Friday, November 4th, I was traveling to West Virginia to visit a college friend. Shortly after crossing the state border, I crested over a hill and noticed a police cruiser sitting in the median. Being an admitted speed demon, I naturally tapped my brakes but I still can’t remember exactly how fast I was going. I kept traveling and after about a mile or so, I notice blue lights in my rear view. I pull to the emergency lane on the left – as does the truck in front of me. I turn down my stereo and place both hands on the wheel, fingers up and visible. The office knocks on my passenger window, and I roll it down. He asks if I know the people in front of me. I admit that I don’t and he tells me to stay put. He walks up to their passenger side and tells them it’s OK to leave.
The officer walks back to my vehicle and requests my license, registration, and proof of insurance; standard operating procedure. Being a libertarian, I have an aversion to interacting with police but I’m always cooperative and respectful. But I’m also aware of recent events in the country – of standard traffic stops such as this ending poorly so I’m a little on edge. He asks where I’m traveling to and if I know why he pulled me over. As I’m stammering through the answers, he asks if I’m OK and why I’m nervous. I can’t admit to any fear and continue my best to be cooperative. Then he asks if I have any weapons, drugs, paraphernalia, or anything dangerous in the car. I usually keep a pocket knife on me but I’ve never had an officer ask me to hand it over. I hear his radio chatter and he asks for a clarification. I can’t hear what dispatch is saying but he leans back down and states that I have a prior assault conviction on my record and for me to clarify again if there is anything dangerous in the car. If I wasn’t scared before, I am now. Also thoroughly confused – I have no assault priors. Aside from the occasional speeding ticket, my record is clean. I have had no previous encounters with law enforcement.
He tells me to keep my hands on the wheel and steps back to his cruiser. I look in my rear view and a second cruiser has pulled up. Two more officers have stepped out and they’re talking. Officer #1 returns to the passenger window and asks, “If I was to have a canine unit sniff around the car, is it going to find anything?” I tell him no and that I do not consent to such a search. A second officer knocks on my driver window and I lower it. She asks again if I have anything dangerous in the car. My heart is racing at this point and I’m fearing for the worst. I admit to the pocket knife and she tells me to put it on the roof of my car. I do so, and she confiscates it then tells me to step out of the vehicle. I slowly get out and I’m ordered to walk to the rear of the vehicle. Then I’m given a confusing set of orders to put my hands behind me, clasped like I’m praying but to put my palms towards the officer. After some struggling to comprehend how to perform such an act, I feel the cold steel of handcuffs on my wrists. Then I’m told to sit on the guard rail.
I’ve never been in handcuffs before. They’re heavy. My wrists hurt. It’s cold outside and I’m just in a t-shirt and jeans. I can see “Kenova Police” written on the side of the cruisers. The three officers surround me and start asking me questions; Officer #2 taking the lead. She’s wearing a camera so I do my best to answer into the camera – for the record, and hopefully, for my safety.
“Where are you headed?”
“Where are you coming from?”
“Lexington, Kentucky, ma’am.”
“Do you live in Lexington?”
“No, ma’am. I live in Georgetown.”
“Do you work in Lexington?”
“Where do you work?”
“[company name redacted], ma’am.”
“I’ve never heard of it. What do you do?”
“We make [product redacted]. I’m an engineer.”
“Engineer!? That’s a big deal. Don’t they background check for that?”
“Yes, ma’am. They do.”
“So tell me about this assault charge. What was it? Bar fight?”
“I’ve never been arrested for assault.”
“That’s not what I hear.”
Officer #3: “I figured engineers were straight laced. Assault and two counts of delivery of a controlled substance?”
Officer #2: “So he was dealing?”
Officer #3: “That means it was bagged up and ready to go.”
Officer #2: “So what’s the deal, man? Building [product redacted] isn’t enough?”
“I’ve never assaulted anyone and I’ve never sold drugs.”
“So you’re saying we’re lying?”
I just stared at her for a moment then looked back at the ground.
“We got a canine on the way. We can avoid a lot of mess. Just tell us what’s in the car.”
“I have my backpack full of clothes. I’m staying the night. Typical car stuff. I have no weapons aside from the pocket knife I surrendered. And I have no drugs or paraphernalia.”
Officer #3: “What’s your social identity number? Let me double check we have the right person.”
This must have been the good cop routine like from the TV shows. They tried to buddy up with me in hopes of a confession. That’s how I interpreted it because an SUV with lights and sires comes flying down the road and pulls up behind the two cruisers. I knew this would be the bad cop routine. West Virginia State K9 was printed on the side. I had gone from locals to state troopers. If Kentucky state troopers are any indication, I knew it was about to get that much worse.
He was tall, with a high and tight hair cut. Had to be ex-military. He started grilling me with the same questions and I gave the same answers. I feel my heart beat racing, adrenaline coursing through my veins, and I’m sputtering answers to the best of ability while crying. This can’t be real. It’s one of my worst nightmares. I knew I was going to jail, or someone is going to be jittery and shoot me. All for what? An empty car? Drugs that don’t exist? A weapon that doesn’t exist?
“Why you crying, son?”
“I’m scared, sir.”
“Why you scared?”
“I thought this was a traffic stop.”
“It is. And you’ve got priors for assault and selling narcotics so look at this from our position.”
“I haven’t done anything. I have no priors.”
“If you’ve got nothing to hide, then why you scared? Huh? Been watching too much news? You a cop hater?”
I don’t hate cops. I just don’t fully trust them. I have a couple friends in law enforcement and even they have told me that they can tell that the system is broken. And as it currently stands, from what I can tell, this is a result of the War On Drugs. My nervousness due to recent events set off “red flags,” as they put it, that I might be under the influence of something or have something to hide. I have nothing to hide. But that doesn’t void my right to privacy.
“Look son, there are some bad cops out there. I’ve seen them. But that’s maybe 2% of them. Nothing bad is going to happen to you. Just tell us what you’re hiding.”
2% you say? I’m supposed to just believe that? I’m supposed to understand why they have me in cuffs, sitting on a guard rail, freezing my ass off but they can’t understand why I might be scared? The lack of logic and self awareness on their part is mind numbing. The empty threats and false information do nothing to calm me. While he’s laying into me, I can see in my peripheral the other three officers laughing amongst themselves.
“I’m not hiding anything. I have no priors. I just… I just want everyone to go home.”
“That’s what we’re trying to do. But I need to know why you’re so scared.”
“BECAUSE I DON’T WANT TO GET SHOT!”
I don’t know why I said it. Frustration I suppose. Perhaps part of me had accepted my fate and just wanted to get it over with. If you’re gonna shoot me, then shoot me. If you’re gonna arrest me, then arrest me. But toying with me over a false history is embarrassing at best – a violation of civil liberties and a blatant abuse of power is more appropriate though.
“No one gets shot around here. Now if you run, we sic the dog on you. Have you threatened me tonight?”
“Have you threatened these other officers tonight?”
“Then you have nothing to worry about.”
Eric Garner died at the hands of police and he wasn’t shot. I’m not trying to dig myself a hole at this point. I just want to get out alive.
“Look, I don’t wanna have to get my dog out… risk him getting hit by a car and search your vehicle over… only to find you’ve been lying to me.”
“I have nothing to hide.”
He sighs then walks over to the SUV, retrieving the dog. The locals walk me further away from my car, and noticeably out of view of the dash camera. Officers #1 and #2 set my backpack on the hood of their cruiser and start going through it. The state trooper walks the dog around my car, having him sniff around every door, nook, and cranny. Officer #3 keeps giving me weird looks then has me spit my gum out. Obviously, I’m chewing up evidence or something. Then he takes a flash light and looks in my mouth. Never mind I’ve been talking the entire time. The state trooper walks the dog back to his vehicle then tells me to walk down to him.
“Look… let’s talk. Just me and you. You can be honest with me. I don’t have a camera on.” The lack of camera doesn’t help my nerves but they’ve demonstrated that they don’t care. “You’ve got a history. See this from our perspective.”
“I have no priors. I’ve done nothing.”
“So you mean to tell me that someone with your license number, your social, your finger prints, and your address was booked for assault and distribution of a controlled substance? That sounds like elaborate identity theft.”
“Maybe it is, sir. Or maybe someone at dispatch got the wrong information.”
“This is your last chance. What are you hiding?”
“I’ve got nothing. I claim nothing.”
I’m ordered to take my shoes off. They start digging through them, looking under the insert and all. They drop them to the ground and tell me to put them back on. I wiggle my feet in the best I can. The state trooper, officer #1, and officer #2 start searching through my car while officer #3 watches over me. All I can do is wait. Cold. Shivering. My hands are going tingly from the weight of the handcuffs. Waiting for the inevitable planted drugs. I think about how to let anyone know where I am. My friend who is expecting me. My girlfriend. My friends. My family. I can’t even cry anymore. My body is going numb all over from the mental exhaustion. I keep looking to check their progress. At what point does anyone start to listen?
They vacate my vehicle and all meet in front of the first cruiser, talking. Officer #3 walks over to me to confirm my social. I tell him the numbers again and inform him that my card is in my wallet. They go back to talking and at one point, all four are talking on their cell phones. The state trooper walks back to me again, looking very puzzled.
“And you swear your record is clean?”
“Yes sir. In fact, I would like to know when these supposed charges were laid against me.”
“2009 and 2011.”
“I was in school in 2009. I was spending my days in the CAD lab, learning the software. 2011, I was working a shitty retail job.”
He goes back to his phone call. I can’t hear anything at all that’s being said.
“Have you lived anywhere aside from Kentucky?”
“Ohio. I can give you the addresses.”
“I visited Chicago for a week several years ago. Never lived there.”
He walks back to the group. They continue talking then the state trooper walks back to his SUV and drives off. I catch bits and pieces of the conversation. They keep looking at me.
“You OK? You got this?”
“Yeah, I’ll handle him.”
Officers #2 and #3 get in their cruiser and drive off. Officer #1 calls in front of the cruiser. Here it comes. I’ve heard Miranda rights in movies and TV shows but… I’ve never heard them in person before. I sulk to the front of the cruiser and wait. I feel his hands then I hear the cuffs release. I turn to face him and he says I’m not under arrest. I drop to my knees sobbing, raking my hands through the dirt. I can’t remember much of what he said. I vaguely remember the same spill about seeing things from their perspective and a scare story about a toddler calling 911 on their parents who have overdosed.
You fucking dick head. You absolute jackass. You put me in handcuffs and searched my car because of a hunch? Or was it blatantly false information so you could get federal dollars to hunt drugs? All this started with a speeding ticket – which I was still given. For a mere 10 miles over the limit. Of course I can’t say this to him. I’m almost home free but goddamn if I’m not roiling with anger. He asks if I’m good to drive and I just nod. He gives me my backpack and wallet. I get in my car, call my friend, then drive off – staying 5 under the limit the entire time.
Sure, things could have been worse.
Sure, I’m alive.
Sure, I could pursue this with a lawyer.
But what’s the point? What difference would it make? There are families of people shot by police who have received nothing. And what am I fighting? I lose an hour of my evening because of “well, we’re following orders.” It’s the the principle of the matter. This is the power of the state over you, the citizen. I was pulled from my vehicle and restrained for being scared.
“I don’t apologize to anyone but I’m gonna apologize to you for wasting your time tonight.”
Apologies don’t make up for the abuse of rights and liberties you exhibited. But I know better than to expect anything. Because that’s the operating motto of the state: “Fuck you, that’s why.”