The Corner

What Does Mike Gerson Do During Traffic Stops?

When most of us are stopped by the police while driving and asked for our licenses, we comply. Not Mike Gerson, apparently. He gives a “distinctly American response,” and resolutely refuses. If that seems strange, hey, it’s just Gerson being Gerson. He’s more morally and politically serious than the rest of us.

Or so his column today would lead you to believe, if it weren’t so much rhetorical pose. I’m sure Mike actually dutifully complies when asked for “his papers” by the police during traffic stops. Here is Gerson:

This law creates a suspect class, based in part on ethnicity, considered guilty until they prove themselves innocent. It makes it harder for illegal immigrants to live without scrutiny – but it also makes it harder for some American citizens to live without suspicion and humiliation. Americans are not accustomed to the command “Your papers, please,” however politely delivered.  The distinctly American response to such a request would be “Go to hell,” and then “See you in court.”

If the Arizona law really did create a race-based “suspect class,” it’d be unconstitutional and condemnable. What it says, if you’ll forgive my lack of moral and political seriousness in reverting to the text, is that if in the course of a “lawful event” an officer develops a “reasonable suspicion” that someone is here illegally, he shall make a “reasonable attempt” to determine his status, “when practicable.”

Like so many of the other critics, Gerson leaves out the “lawful event” language in his column. But the drafters intended for the phrase to mean something, i.e., basically encounters between the police and civilians that would happen anyway. Most of these interactions are likely to take place during traffic stops, when drivers are already asked for licenses. If they don’t have one or any other ID, and there’s  reasonable suspicion they’re here illegally, the officer will contact ICE.

I think a lot of misunderstanding of the law surrounds reasonable suspicion, which sounds like a frighteningly vague warrant to accost anyone. But it’s a well-established concept under the law. It’s not as high a standard as “probable cause,”  but it’s not a wild guess, either. And the law forbids developing reasonable suspicion “solely” on race. If an officer went around randomly confronting Latinos demanding their documents, he would not be acting in keeping with the letter or the spirit of the law. Not that the critics seem to care.

A lot of them have been sloppy. It took Gerson to add bullying sanctimony to the mix.


UPDATE: I should have written “lawful contact,” not “lawful event.”


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