Mandrel Stuart and his girlfriend were on a date driving near Washington, D.C., when a police cruiser pulled out of the median and raced after them. The 2012 traffic stop was the beginning of what the Washington Post calls “a dizzying encounter that would leave Stuart shaken and wondering whether he had been singled out because he was black and had a police record.” Over two hours, he was detained without charges, handcuffed, taken to a police station, and stripped of $17,550 in cash he planned to spend that night for restaurant supplies and equipment. The reason for the police stop: Stuart's SUV had tinted windows and a video was playing in his sightline. He was never charged with a crime. Stuart would have to fight the federal government for any chance of getting his money back.
Stuart's case is among 400 seizures from 17 states examined by the Post to assess how the practice known as “highway interdiction” has affected drivers. Their methods often involve the use of minor traffic infractions as pretexts for stops; an analysis of “indicators” about drivers' intentions, such as nervousness; a request for warrantless searches; and a focus on cash. Police say the stop-and-seizure tactic hurts drug organizations and increases security on the highways. Drivers and their advocates say that all too often it is the innocent who suffer the emotional and financial consequences of misplaced power. “We have been fighting this battle for a number of years . . . but it is just breathtaking to hear what is happening on a grand scale,” said Scott Bullock of the Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based civil liberties group. “It should not exist in a country that respects fundamental notions of due process.”