Sarah Seo: When Henry Ford invented the Model T, mass-produced cars flooded main streets that were originally intended for pedestrians and a few horse-drawn carriages. So now you had hundreds of cars on the streets that couldn’t accommodate all of them. And people were killing each other in their cars, they were killing children who were playing in the streets, and so what local governments did right away was to enact a long list of traffic laws. The traffic code became bigger and bigger and bigger, and all of a sudden everybody became a misdemeanor offender. Everybody broke traffic laws and it was a huge problem. How do you get respectable citizens to obey traffic laws? And they realized they needed the police to enforce them. 

Aaron Naparstek: Hey, everybody. I’m Aaron Naparstek and this is The War on Cars. For 100 years, the car’s been sold to Americans as the ultimate freedom machine. Yet no part of American life is more heavily policed than driving. You know, we, we’ve all seen the shaky videos of terrible traffic stops where police pull someone over for a broken taillight or a failure to signal. Then the next thing you know, bullets are flying and an unarmed person is dead inside the car. That someone is usually a person of color and that police officer is almost never held accountable. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right of all Americans to be protected against unreasonable searches and seizures by police. And yet, it often feels like this guarantee doesn’t really exist when Americans are driving. That voice you heard at the top is historian and legal scholar Sarah Seo. She’s a professor at the University of Iowa College of Law, and she is the author of Policing the Open Road: How Cars Transformed American Freedom. In it, Professor Seo tells the story of how the advent of mass motoring vastly expanded the role of the police in American life. She argues that the story we tell ourselves about the car bringing us greater personal freedom is false. That, in fact, a century’s worth of traffic law has basically gutted the Fourth Amendment and established a kind of automotive police state. My co-hosts, Sarah Goodyear, Doug Gordon, and I, originally planned to do this episode in the usual format with, you know, all three of us in the studio discussing the clips from the interview. And then we decided this one really works better if we just let her tell the story. So, here you go. Hope you enjoy it. It’s pretty mind-blowing. So, you know, strap in. As ever, please go to and support us on Patreon so we can keep doing more of this. Here is my conversation with Sarah Seo, author of Policing the Open Road: How Cars Transformed American Freedom. 

Aaron: Sarah Seo, welcome to The War on Cars. It is such a pleasure to talk to you. I absolutely love the book. I think our listeners will love the book. I got to say, Policing the Open Road is so readable. There are so many great characters. You tell such a good story. Um, this is a very accessible book for everyone. Really. 

Sarah: Thank you. I actually had students in mind when I wrote it. I wanted to make sure that even without a JD or years of practicing criminal law, someone could understand the significance of this history. 

Aaron: You know, you start the book with this really interesting story of Captain John Bates, his wife, Mary, and this terrible encounter they have with the police in Arizona. And, you know, even though this happened 100 years ago, it sounds really familiar in some ways to us today. 

Sarah: Right. So one thing that’s interesting about that case, it’s the first car case I found, I decided, in 1916, so it’s about a few years after the invention of the Model T, so it was decided by the Arizona Supreme Court, which is Arizona’s highest court, so it took a few years for that case to go up. And the familiar parts of it are… You have three police officers who have information that there’s an assault at a pleasure resort right outside of town. So they get into their… what they call public service automobile, and they’re on their way to the pleasure resort. And they see this car that seems to be headed towards them, but suddenly turn around. And so they get suspicious. And back then, uh, public service automobiles didn’t have sirens. They weren’t painted in a special color indicating them as police cars. And so what they do to try to get the car to stop is to yell, “Stop! We’re the police, we’re the law!” And these early cars were noisy. The… the roads were bumpy. The exhaust pipes were rattling up and down. So with all the noise, Captain Bates didn’t hear the calls for him to stop. And so what the police officers ended up doing was shooting at the tires to try to get the car to stop, just to find out who, who was in the car. Um, and unfortunately. 

Aaron: Seems like terrible policing. 

Sarah: It’s actually… That is a common story. I’ve seen that story about half a dozen times in different, uh, law cases. And actually a police training manual mentions that situation as a reason for painting patrol cars a different color. So it was a common situation where, uh, police would try to shoot at the tires to get a car to stop. 

Aaron: So they just hadn’t thought through, like, how one car will stop another car out there on the road. 

Sarah: Exactly. And this is a theme of my book, right, with mass… with the mass production of cars. It’s changing how the police do their work. And this is one small example of how it changes police, when they need to think about how are police going to stop cars that they think are suspicious or have suspected criminals in them? So what happens in this case with Captain John Bates, is that one of the shots to try to get the car to stop kills his wife who’s sitting in the passenger seat. That’s a familiar aspect of the story, even to readers today. But that’s where the similarities end, right? Because one, one of the differences is the three officers are on trial for murder for Mrs. Bates. 

Aaron: The officers actually go on trial for murder. 

Sarah: They actually go on trial for murder. And the jury finds them all guilty. One of the reasons for why the jury found them guilty was because, well, first of all, Captain Bates and his wife are white. They’re respectable. “Captain.” He has some social standing in society. And they’re innocent. They were just coming home from a friend’s house. And so the police didn’t have any reason to stop them in the first place. That’s what the court says. If they weren’t guilty of anything, the police have no power to stop them. And that’s not the law today. 

[[The following includes audio excerpts from the Sandra Bland traffic stop. Please be advised, it is upsetting.]]

Officer Brian Encinia: Hello, ma’am. We’re the Texas Highway Patrol and the reason for your stop is you didn’t fail… You failed to signal a lane change. You have your driver’s license and insurance with you? 

Sarah: The story that I follow up just to compare the differences in the history from 1916 to today is the Sandra Bland case, where she’s pulled over for not signaling for a right turn. 

Brian Encinia: You OK? 

Sandra Bland: I’m waiting on you. You… This is your job. I’m waiting on you. What do you want me to do? 

Brian Encinia: Well, you seem very irritated. 

Sandra Bland: I am. I, I really am. I feel like it’s crap is what I’m getting a ticket for. I was getting out of your way. You were speeding up, tailing me. So I move over, and you stop me. So, yeah, I am a little irritated but that doesn’t stop you from giving me a ticket so. 

Brian Encinia: Are you done? 

Sandra Bland: You asked me what was wrong and I told you. 

Brian Encinia: OK. 

Sandra Bland: So now I’m done, yeah. 

Brian Encinia: OK. 

Sarah: So the traffic stops. So she’s pulled over and, uh, she’s smoking in her car and the officer wants her to take out the light. And she says, “This is my car. I can… I have a right smoke in my car.” 

Brian Encinia: You mind putting out your cigarette, please? Come on. 

Sandra Bland: I’m in my car, why I have to put out my cigarette? 

Brian Encinia: Well, you can step on out now. 

Sandra Bland: I don’t have to step out of my car. 

Brian Encinia: Step out of the car. 

Sandra Bland: No, you don’t have the right. 

Brian Encinia: Step out of the car. 

Sandra Bland: You do not have the right to do that. 

Sarah: They get into an argument about that. He wants her to get out of the car. 

Brian Encinia: Get out of the car now, or I’m going to remove you. 

Sandra Bland: And I’m calling my lawyer. 

Brian Encinia: I’m going to yank you out of here. 

Sandra Bland: OK? You’re going to yank me out of my car? 

Brian Encinia: Get out. 

Sandra Bland: OK. All right. 

Sarah: The traffic stop basically turns pretty violent. She’s arrested and sent to jail. 

Brian Encinia: I’m going to drag you out of here. 

Sandra Bland: So you’re going…You’re threatening to drag me out of my own car. 

Brian Encinia: Get out of the car! I will light you up. Get out!

Sandra Bland: Wow. 

Brian Encinia: Now! 

Sandra Bland: Wow. 

Brian Encinia: Get out of the car! 

Sandra Bland: For a failure to signal, you’re doing all this for a… 

Brian Encinia: Get over there. 

Sandra Bland: Right. Yeah. Yeah, let’s take this to court. 

Brian Encinia: Go ahead. 

Sandra Bland: For a failure to signal. Yup, for a failure to signal! 

Brian Encinia: Get off the phone. 

Sandra Bland: *unclear* 

Sarah: Even though she doesn’t die during the traffic stop, the reason why I actually use that story in the introduction of my book is because when you, when you look at her entire life and look at the reasons for why she’s unemployed, the reason why she’s self-medicating with marijuana and arrested for marijuana possession, the reason why she has traffic fines that she can’t pay for and goes into debt — all of those setbacks in her life happen in the context of traffic stops. And that’s because our society is a car society. And the number one place where most Americans encounter the police is in their cars. 

Sandra Bland: You’re about to break my wrist! Can you stop! You are about to fucking break my wrist! 

Brian Encinia: Stop it! 

Female Officer: Stop resisting, ma’am. 

Brian Encinia: If you would stop, then I’ll tell you! 

Sandra Bland: A fucking traffic ticket. 

Brian Encinia: Now stop! 

Sandra Bland: You are such a pussy. You are such a pussy. 

Female Officer: No, you are. You should not be fighting.

Brian Encinia: You’re yanking around! 

Aaron: How did the automobile change policing in America? 

Sarah: So before cars outside of the big cities like New York and Boston, the police were few in number. For example, an average town like Berkeley, California, had about half a dozen officers on their force. They didn’t have a lot of power to proactively investigate and go after crime and criminals, and they mostly focused on the margins of society, like drunk people and vagrants. They made sure that they steered clear of main streets, in front of businesses, um, even, you know, drove them out of town. So that was the state of policing before cars. Now, after cars… 

Aaron: Right. 

Sarah: The police grew in numbers to dozens, several dozens, even hundreds. Uh, they got a lot more discretionary power. And, for the very first time, they started enforcing the law against respectable citizens, citizen drivers. When Henry Ford invented the Model T, mass-produced cars flooded main streets originally intended for pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages. So now you had hundreds of cars on the streets that couldn’t accommodate all of them. And people were killing each other in their cars, they were killing children who were playing in the streets. There were so many traffic accidents. If you think about the word “traffic,” it used to mean “movement.” Now, what does traffic mean? 

Aaron: It’s just a thing that sits there in the middle of the street… 

Sarah: Right, it means… 

Aaron:And honks at you. 

Sarah: It means the opposite thing. It doesn’t mean “movement” anymore. Mass-produced cars gave new meaning to the word “traffic.” And so what local governments did right away was to enact a long list of traffic laws regulating everything from safety equipment, right, brakes so that they don’t run over horses and children. And they enacted laws on right of way, who could make turns, when they can make turns… Could they make a left turn? Right turn? Speed limits was a huge thing. The traffic code became bigger and bigger and bigger. And all of a sudden, everybody became a misdemeanor offender. Everybody broke traffic laws and it was a huge problem. How do you get respectable citizens to obey traffic laws? And they realized they needed the police to enforce them. 

Aaron: I guess we should define that, too. Like what is a “respectable citizen?” 

Sarah: The best way to answer that question is to look at a car advertisement in, um, the early 1910s. It advertised the mass-produced car for the everyman and then actually had a list of who, who was an everyman. It was the farmer. It was the businessmen. It was the teacher. It was the lawyer. These are just your middle-class Americans and that, uh, at that time. 

Aaron: How did you get interested in this? Like, why, how did you start studying, like, traffic law? I mean, is that what you intended to do? Where… How did you get into this?

Sarah: Not at all. Um, one funny anecdote about that is, um, a lot of my research happened in the presidential library of Herbert Hoover. And when I went there and I asked them, “Can I see all his writings and speeches on traffic?” the archivist said, “Nobody’s looked at them.” 

Aaron: Wow. That’s when you know you’re on to something good. 

Sarah: Right? Right. Um, so I started this because I was interested in the history on the War on Drugs. And I, I became interested in that as a law clerk to two federal judges right out of law school. And I realized almost all of the criminal cases we were dealing with were drug cases. And it made me think there’s a way in which our prosecution enforcement of drug laws is really transformed American society and I wanted to know more about that. 

Aaron: But so how did the… How did looking at drug cases and the War on Drugs lead you to cars and traffic? 

Sarah: So the way that drug… a lot of drug cases are enforced today is through car stops and searches of cars. And that is governed by the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures. And so the Fourth Amendment is really the only constitutional provision that governs what police can do when they’re searching and seizing things, when they’re stopping cars and when they’re searching cars. And so I was interested in the history of the Fourth Amendment and so the way I started my research was literally to begin reading every single Fourth Amendment case. 

Aaron: Wow. How, like, how many cases are there? 

Sarah: Hundreds of thousands. I took about a year and a half just to read Fourth Amendment cases. 

Aaron: Oh my god. 

Sarah: And what I found was really interesting. Fourth Amendment cases explode in the 1920s. And what happens around that time? Mass production of cars coinciding with prohibition. 

Aaron: So bootlegging. 

Sarah: Bootlegging. And a lot of bootlegging happens by transporting liquor and cars. And so the police have to stop and search cars for liquor. 

Aaron: There’s one part in your book where Herbert Hoover, who is not yet the president ushering us into the Great Depression, which is what he became, but he is the… Sorry, Herbert. Was that uncharitable to Herbert? 

Sarah: No, he has a museum, so it’s okay. 

Aaron: But, um, but before that, he was the U.S. commerce secretary. And at one point, he actually declares that the car and all of the traffic that’s clogging up cities is creating a national crisis. And it’s really left to the police to figure that out. And one character I want to hit on before we get too far ahead is a guy named August Vollmer, who… in the early nineteen hundreds, he’s this sort of innovative, young, whiz kid police chief in Berkeley, California. And he’s kind of puzzled as to why so many cars are crashing on the streets of his city. And tell me a little bit about August Vollmer and, like, what his role was in, like, changing modern policing. 

Sarah: Sure. So actually, not just changing modern police. He’s called the father of modern police… 

Aaron: Oh, wow. OK.

Sarah: …In the United States. So he was chief of the Berkeley Police Department from 1905 to 1930 or so. Um, so, really, during the era when the police became professionalized, he was a police chief. But he was also a national figure. Police departments throughout the country asked him to advise them, to consult them. Even foreign countries asked Vollmer to consult in modernizing and professionalizing their forces. He wants to use scientific principles to modernize and professionalize the police because he wants the police to be professional crime fighters. And the police do become professionalized the way he wants them to be. They’re full-salaried. They receive training. They get more power, uh, discretionary power to exercise their judgment. They get patrol cars the way he wants them, because professionals need tools and he saw the patrol car as one of the tools of policing. They do all that policing changes in the way he wants to, but not because of the reason he wants them to change. He wants them to professionalize so they can fight crime, that the police become professionalized because they have to enforce the traffic laws against respectable citizens. 

Aaron: So that’s interesting. So they… These, these new professional police forces just find themselves stopping speeders or clearing up traffic jams, essentially? 

Sarah: Exactly. The reason why the police needed to be professionalized was because the job of managing respectable citizens who became angry because they were stopped for a traffic violation was really hard. 

Aaron: Is there something about the car specifically that makes respectable citizens… turns them into sociopaths? I mean, what, what’s going on here? Like, you have any insight into the human dimension of this? 

Sarah: So that’s above my pay grade or just an entirely different discipline. But one thing I’ll say is that that is a question that was asked in the 1920s and ’30s, too. They just didn’t know why the respectable drawing-room gentleman turned into a road hog. So, what, what’s interesting is that the mass production of cars coincides with prohibition. And those are the two, um, two instances that greatly increase that everyman citizen to interact with the police, right, with their booze and in their cars. And so what happened to the prohibition experiment? Because so many people flagrantly violated the prohibition laws. What happened? We’ve repealed them. We got rid of the prohibition because it just couldn’t be enforced. What Hoover — who was the commerce secretary, as you mentioned — what he said was, “You know, we can’t get rid of cars the way we can with prohibition. Cars are here to stay. And so we need to enforce traffic laws even if they don’t want to.” So, what, what cities and towns do throughout the United States is to basically hire more police officers. 

Aaron: Right. So more, more cars means more cops. 

Sarah: And the LAPD actually says that in their annual reports from the 1920s, as early as the 1920s, they say, “We’re building more roads. More roads means more cars, which means we need to hire more police officers.” 

Aaron: So an unexpected bargain in the kind of advent of our freedom machines is many more police, much more in our personal business. 

Sarah: Exactly. And what the LAPD is also finding out is that, look, the traffic officers are pulling over traffic violators and those traffic fines are paying for more police. The Ferguson report the U.S. government published after Black Lives Matter and what happened in Ferguson… 

Aaron: So 20… Now we’re jumping ahead to 2015 here. 

Sarah: 20… 2015. Right. Um, what they concluded was that the Ferguson Police Department was generating more fines as a way to fund the city, especially the courts, and the, the police department. The LAPD was, um, noticing the same ability of traffic fines, being able to support the police department, back in the 1920s. Americans had a great aversion to paying more taxes, which is one reason why police departments were small. But when they found out that they don’t have to be taxed to hire more police officers, that traffic fines could do the job, then it created the cycle of traffic enforcement and growing police departments. 

Aaron: You write about this one case, which I found really interesting. On December 15th, 1921, police officers are staked out along a road between Detroit and Grand Rapids, Michigan. They see this flashy, expensive Oldsmobile Roadster drive by and one of the officers has a feeling that a liquor bootlegger named George Carroll is the driver of this fancy car. And so the cops decide to stop the car. And what happens? 

Sarah: So they know Carroll’s reputation as a bootlegger and they recognize his car, his fancy car. And they’re not sure whether he has liquor in his car at that moment, but they suspect it. 

Aaron: OK. 

Sarah: Uh, because that road between Detroit and Grand Rapids is a route. 

Aaron: Because Canada’s up there and that’s where a lot of the booze came from, right? 

Sarah: Exactly. Exactly. And so they stop him and they ask him, “Do you have any booze?” He makes a bribe offer, which is refused. And they, they’re searching his car. They can’t find anything. They’re about to let Carroll go until he… the, one of the officers had something hard and upholstery of a car seat, the back car seat. 

Aaron: Yeah. 

Sarah: So they rip it open and they find a dozen cases of liquor. Um, and so he’s arrested and he brings a Fourth Amendment challenge. 

Aaron: So, so Carroll’s basically saying, or his lawyers are saying, “OK, I had booze in my car, but your search of my car was illegal. The Fourth Amendment protects me from that.” 

Sarah: Exactly. So the Fourth Amendment, for people who don’t know it, protects individuals to be secure from unreasonable searches and seizures in their persons so the, the individual, him or herself, papers, houses, and effects. And effects refers to any movable property. So, presumably, a car fits that definition of an effect. And the way that courts and judges interpreted the Fourth Amendment at the time was that if the police or the government want to search and seize your effect, they need to have a warrant and a warrant requires probable cause. “Probable cause” means the police have sufficient reason to believe that you’ve committed a crime. And so what Carroll’s lawyer argues is that the police at that time didn’t have any probable cause to believe that there was liquor in his car. They had a mere hunch, but they didn’t have probable cause. And if they didn’t have probable cause, then they couldn’t have stopped the car and searched it. And so all of that was unconstitutional, and if it was unconstitutional, they had to throw out the evidence. And if there is no evidence, then basically the prosecutors had no case against Carroll and he had to go free. 

Aaron: So this case goes all the way up to the Supreme Court? 

Sarah: Exactly. And it’s so hard. It’s such a difficult case for the Supreme Court that they asked the lawyers to argue it again the next year. 

Aaron: Help me understand, like, why this was so difficult of a question for the judges. 

Sarah: The difficulty that the judges had in 1925 is the same difficulty that we’ve had throughout the 20th century, which is on the one hand, a car is an effect. It’s a private property. It’s my car. The government can’t search my car, invade my privacy in my car without probable cause, without a legal justification for that. So there’s a lot of emotional attachment to my car, my private property. And it’s celebrated in American culture. It’s celebrated in songs, movies, right? And also, car manufacturers really encourage that way of thinking. They describe the car as like an extension of your house. It’s like your parlor or your border where you can have intimate, you know, assignations in your car like you would in your bedroom. So there’s this notion about the car as a very private, individual space. Um, but pushing against that or intention with that is the idea that cars are really dangerous. A lot of people die in car accidents, especially young children. And there’s a great need to regulate the operation of motor vehicles. Um, and so that gives public justification for the government to act in regulating what people do in cars. So there’s this tension between government regulation and ideas about private property, and that becomes even more difficult when… during… — this is, again, during the time of probation and Carroll is a bootlegger — crimes are being committed with cars. The chief justice of the Supreme Court at the time, Chief Justice Taft, called cars, um, “this great evil machine.” 

Aaron: Yeah, I actually have that quote here. That quote was amazing. 

Sarah: No, no, you should read it. It is amazing. 

Aaron: So William Howard Taft said the car is “the greatest instrument for promoting immunity of crimes of violence in the history of civilization.” 

Sarah: Exactly. And think about it. So, early, early years of the automobile, there are some colored cars, but most of them are dark-hued. Henry Ford famously said, “Pick any color for your Model T as long as it’s black.” 

Aaron: Right. 

Sarah: Right. And so… And they’re, they’re standardized, right, they’re, mass-produced and so they’re standardized. And even if there’s lots of different manufacturers of cars, they all kind of look pretty similar. And so imagine parking lots or highways with very identical cars driving by. It’s just really hard for police officers to tell whose car is whose. Is it the ordinary traffic violator’s car? The respectable American person’s car? Or is it the car of a suspected criminal? 

Aaron: So ultimately, what is the influence of this Carroll case, the case of the bootlegger in Michigan? Like, why does it matter? 

Sarah: Carroll case is huge. It’s a turning point. For the very first time, the Supreme Court of the United States recognizes that the police have discretionary power and that it’s going to be an issue under the U.S. Constitution. So what the Supreme Court did in the Carroll case is totally transform the Fourth Amendment. Before if it involved private property, the government needed to get a warrant. Chief Justice Taft didn’t quite want to go there and so basically what he said is, “When it involves cars, if the police have probable cause to believe that there’s evidence of a crime in the car, then they don’t need a warrant.” So if you think about it, what does the warrant process entail? It entails a police officer going before a judge and saying, “There’s probable cause for me to be able to search this home, this paper, or this effect. Judge, can I have your permission?” What the Carroll case did was transfer that decision making from the judge to the police, to the police on the road, right? So the police on the road could determine for him or herself: do I have probable cause to believe that that car contains evidence of crime? And if I believe it, then I can stop and search that car without asking permission from a judge. That gives the police great discretionary power. 

Aaron: Basically, this case of this bootlegger turns the police into, like, a kind of judge and jury out on the road. 

Sarah: Exactly. And so the… there is a procedural remedy if the police are wrong, right? What Carroll did was to challenge the constitutionality of that search and saying, “The police didn’t have probable cause.” But think about it this way. Who makes those arguments? People like Carroll who actually have… 

Aaron: Yeah, guilty people. 

Sarah: …Something in their cars, right? 

Aaron: Right, they got caught. 

Sarah: If you’re a judge and the guilty person with the goods is making that argument, it’s really hard to believe that the police don’t have probable cause at the moment. 

Aaron: Right. The fact that you had the booze in your upholstery… The police were right. 

Sarah: Exactly. So you have a century’s worth of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence being decided in cases where the guilty are arguing that the police didn’t have probable cause. That’s a losing argument. And so our Fourth Amendment jurisprudence over the past hundred years or so have been decided in these cases. 

Aaron: In some ways, this all feels very quaint. Like, though they’re arguing over this stuff because it just feels totally normal today that the police can kind of pull you over and… with… for virtually any excuse and seemingly do what they want. 

Sarah: Do you know why it feels normal? 

Aaron: Why? 

Sarah: The police are trained to. So, because of all these case laws that have been decided to allow a lot of policing, um, over cars, um, I looked at police textbooks that actually say the Fourth Amendment can be a tool to investigate for drugs in people’s cars. 

Aaron: Essentially, what you’re arguing then is like this history of decades of case law around traffic stops, car cases… basically, it sounds like they gutted the Fourth Amendment? 

Sarah: Yep. 

Aaron: Like it sort of doesn’t exist. 

Sarah: Yep. And this is…

Aaron: Are you the only one to point this out? Like, this seems like a big deal. 

Sarah: It is a huge deal. And so the received story about our history of the Fourth Amendment is a progressive one, that the Supreme Court upheld individual Fourth Amendment rights against the police, that the court uses the Fourth Amendment to minutely regulate what the police can and cannot do. And that story is told through cases like Wolf vs Colorado, that the court decided in 1949, where the court said that it was unconstitutional for the police to enter a home without a warrant and search it. And our story about the Fourth Amendment has been told through landmark cases that all have to do with home invasions. I’m looking at car cases, and in car cases, the court does something completely different. They approve what the police are doing with respect to cars. And my argument is: for most Americans who go about the business of their everyday lives in their cars, that’s the important part of our lives that we’ve handed over to the police. Um, and going back to the Ferguson report, that’s where the police get the minority citizens; they get them for, uh, they get them for minor traffic violations and rack up their fines. And so the problems with, um, an equal justice and poor people not being able to pay their fines and late fees and fees for not appearing in court, all of that begins with traffic violations. “Driving while black.” How does that start? With a minor traffic violation. I teach criminal procedure and almost every case that involves finding drugs in cars, it starts with a busted tail light, starts with failure to use a signal when turning. Um, it starts with a minor traffic violation. And that is the entry point for the police to enforce other criminal laws. 

Aaron: I’ve really come to a place where I don’t think that police-based traffic enforcement is even useful. Traffic enforcement is just like a facet of transportation management. Let the computers and the electric guys and the Department of Transportation figure out how to manage transportation safely. If there’s… Sure, if there’s a crime somewhere, if, like, somebody stabs a bus driver or there’s a fight, call the cops. But just like managing traffic isn’t really a policing job, maybe. 

Sarah: You sound like August Vollmer. 

Aaron: Really is that… Really is that… 

Sarah: He said that traffic enforcement should not be a police duty, that they were separate tasks. Because his vision of what police do is fight crime, and traffic, traffic enforcement didn’t conform to his vision of professional policing. And so I agree with you. I’ve made the argument before that we should segregate traffic law enforcement and criminal law enforcement because merging the two duties in one officer leads to abuses. Because everybody violates traffic laws, which means that the police can stop anybody that they want to. That disproportionately tends to be minorities. 

Aaron: Got it. OK. Well, it was really nice talking to you. 

Sarah: It was a great… It was a lot of fun for me, too. So thank you for having me.

Aaron: Yeah, I really appreciate it. Sarah Seo, Policing the Open Road. It’s a great book. I highly recommend it. War on Cars listeners will love it. Um, thanks a lot. Appreciate it. Yeah. OK, that’s it. Hope you enjoyed it. Thanks for listening to The War on Cars. Remember to rate and review us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts because that helps people find us. If you want to reach us, send an email to [email protected]. Thanks to our top sponsors, including Charlie Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon; the law office of Vaccaro and White in New York City; Huck and Elizabeth Finne; Timothy Buck; and Drew Raines. This episode was edited by Jamie Kaiser. It was recorded at the Brooklyn Podcasting Studio and Great City Post. Thanks to Houston Snider, Josh Wilcox, and Marcus Dembinsky. And thanks so much to Professor Sarah Seo at the University of Iowa College of Law for first of all, just writing such a phenomenal book, but also for taking the time to speak with us. Her book is great. You should run to your local bookshop and get a copy of it right away. Policing the Open Road. I’m Aaron Naparstek, and this is The War on Cars. 

Bing Crosby: “Come away with me, Lucille/ In my merry Oldsmobile/ Down the road of life we’ll fly/ Automo-bubbling, you and I/ To the church will swiftly steal/ Then our wedding bells will peal/ You can go as far as you like with me/ in my merry Oldsmobile/”