Texas Driver Sues to Put the Brakes On Unreasonable Searches and Seizures
Alek Schott, a Houston resident and married father of two young kids, was driving home from a run-of-the-mill work trip when he was pulled over by a Bexar County, Texas, sheriff’s deputy. The officer claimed he pulled Alek over for drifting over the fog line, but footage from Alek’s personal dashcam shows that never happened.
And the deputy didn’t behave like someone interested in enforcing traffic laws. Instead, it quickly became clear that the deputy had pulled Alek over to fish for evidence of a potential crime. The deputy held Alek on the side of the highway for over an hour. He grilled Alek about his trip, his work, his family, and whether he had anything illegal—or a large amount of cash—in his possession.
It was then that the deputy admitted that he wasn’t on patrol to write traffic tickets; he was looking for “big sh#t” (major crimes and cash). Based on that goal, he treated Alek’s calm, benign answers as suspicious and radioed for a drug dog after Alek refused a search.
Alek had no drugs in his truck, but an alert triggered by the dog’s handler was all the deputy needed to ransack the vehicle. Together with two other officers, he emptied every bag and pulled at every part of the truck. They found food wrappers, a hard hat, two kids’ car seats, and some work equipment, but they didn’t find what they were looking for—no drugs, no evidence of a crime, and no cash.
Unfortunately, Alek’s situation is all too common—as the deputy himself admitted when he finally let Alek go, because “9 times out of 10, this is what happens”—they search cars and find nothing. Beyond Bexar County, law enforcement nationwide regularly uses falsified stops to initiate searches, even without probable cause.
But the Constitution forbids the kind of stop-first, justify-later policing that Alek—and countless others—experienced. Although the U.S. Supreme Court has held that police can stop a driver for a traffic violation to investigate a different offense, an officer must have a basis to believe a traffic violation was committed in the first place. The Fourth Amendment bars police from stopping whomever they want, whenever they want.
Police know these rules, but far too often they only pay them lip service. Any behavior—talking too much, talking too little, acting too nervous, acting too calm, making too much eye contact, making too little eye contact—can be used to justify a fishing expedition. So IJ sued Bexar County and its deputies to remind law enforcement that there are limits on their roadside authority and that property rights protections guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment also apply to vehicles.
As part of IJ’s Project on the Fourth Amendment, our lawsuit on Alek’s behalf will enforce an important principle: You cannot interrogate drivers and search their cars without any justification and get away with it.
Christie Hebert is an IJ attorney.
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