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Stopped By the Cops

Last month, Federal Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that the controversial stop, question, and frisk tactics of New York City Police violated the Fourth Constitutional Amendment, which bars unlawful search and seizure, as well as the Fourteenth, which ensures citizens equal protection and due process under the law. Numerous police departments across the country have adopted the practices of those used in New York City, and “stop and frisk” is no exception. However, even after a federal judge ordered the NYPD to end their use of “stop and frisk,” the tactic continues to be used against law-abiding citizens—even in Buffalo.

Yesterday, while returning from an ethics class at Buffalo State College, I was followed and subsequently pulled over by Buffalo police. Had I been driving erratically, with an expired registration or broken light, there would be no need for me to write this article. The police would have had a just cause to pull me over, and ask me questions pertaining to my ability to safely and legally operate a motor vehicle on a public street. I would be slightly annoyed that I now needed to pay a hefty ticket for a broken taillight, but would otherwise be relatively accepting of my penalty.

The only problem is that, while I was being followed, I obeyed every traffic law in existence. I was not driving erratically. I have a valid driver’s license, registration, inspection, and insurance. I even slowed down to allow an adorable kitten to cross the road.

So why was I pulled over? The officers approached my car, and immediately asked “Where are you going, and where are you coming from?” I responded that I was coming from a class at Buff State, and going to my apartment on Richmond Avenue. The officer asked to see my license, while the other visually searched my car from outside the front passenger window.

“Why did you go down West Avenue instead of taking Richmond?” the officer asked in an agitated voice. I replied that I have lived on West Avenue for the past two years before recently moving to Richmond, and that going home on West Avenue was what I did every single day. Besides, I don’t really like waiting for the lights or going around the traffic circles on Richmond.

“Yeah…you made a half circle. I saw it. You could have just taken Richmond,” the officer said, while looking in the back seat. “What exactly are you going to school for at Buffalo State? Are you sure that you actually go there?”

I replied that I was studying urban and regional planning and analysis, and offered my student ID to him so he could inspect it. “I don’t need to see that,” the officer said. I asked if he would like to see my insurance card, which he accepted.

“How long have you lived in Buffalo?” he said.

After replying that I had lived in Buffalo almost my whole life, I immediately began to understand why I had been pulled over. Recently, there has been a spike in the number of young, white, suburban males making the journey from the suburbs to the West Side to purchase drugs. I had been pulled over for being white and driving through an economically repressed neighborhood.

“You got anything illegal in here?” the officer said. After replying that I absolutely did not have anything illegal in my car, the officer handed my license and insurance card back to me and said, “You’re all set.”

Driving away, I began to ponder what exactly had just occurred. I am not suspicious-looking. Not even remotely. Even if I were suspicious-looking, is that really enough to warrant being harassed? And although I hadn’t been frisked, I was definitely stopped and questioned for no reason whatsoever. My constitutional rights as an American citizen had been disregarded by the Buffalo Police. I am willing to guarantee that the officers who pulled me over have done the same, or worse, to numerous other law-abiding drivers from all walks of life.

I then thought about how ironic it was to be pulled over by police officers immediately after leaving a class dealing with ethics in public service. My grandmother is currently recovering from open heart surgery at Gates Vascular Institute. Had I made the terrible mistake of driving through the East Side on my way to visit her, would I be harassed in the same manner? Are there any officers left that would still believe a sick grandmother story?

- Thomas Lampo, Buffalo

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