Cop without a Client – a perspective on public safety in an age of unstoppable cars (by Aristotle Wolfe)

Monday, June 19th, 2017

I am a California highway patrolman, and this is what I know. I know that driving is dangerous, and I know that people are fallible, a combination that results in over 30,000 deaths a year on our nation’s highways. I also know that criminals drive those highways, and I know how to find them, even when I am just trying to keep the roads safe. I know that, when I do my job well, less people die and more criminals go to jail. I also know that this may change someday. In the future, cars will drive themselves, and when they do, our highways are going to be safer than I can make them today. I know that will change my job, but I don’t know how. I think driverless cars are going to save a lot of lives, and I think that is good. But I also think there is space in this new, safer world for criminals—and terrorists—to move more freely than they do today, to commit crimes we have not yet imagined, with fewer traffic cops out there to stop them. And I think we all need to do some thinking on that.

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are already driving on some of the nation’s streets and highways. This technology is advancing quickly and will likely diffuse rapidly throughout society. AVs are expected to reduce traffic collisions and prevent motorist deaths, but only if those motorists become passengers, not drivers, thus eliminating the human error that causes most accidents. With the traffic safety benefits of the AV, there will be little need for the traffic enforcement conducted by police and highway patrol agencies across the country today. Yet traffic stops are the most common form of face-to-face contact between police officers and citizens, and traffic enforcement has been a form of crime detection, deterrence and disruption in this country since the dawn of the conventional automobile.

There are myriad examples of crimes discovered during traffic stops, including those of some infamous criminals and terrorists. Serial killer Ted Bundy was arrested over a traffic violation while driving a stolen vehicle, even though he was not immediately connected to his more nefarious and gruesome crimes. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was pulled over after the bombing because he was driving a vehicle without license plates, and then arrested for carrying a concealed firearm. Only days later was it discovered that a traffic stop had led to the apprehension of a man responsible for the deaths of 168 people. Similarly, a sharp New Jersey State Trooper arrested Chinese Red Army terrorist Yu Kikumura after observing him act suspiciously and then drive unlawfully at a service area near the New Jersey Turnpike. The stop uncovered plans and bomb-making materiel that led to Kikumura’s conviction for plotting to blow up a Navy recruiting station in Manhattan.

While examples such as these are illustrative of the power of the traffic stop as a criminal interdiction tool, local traffic and highway patrol officers are not deployed primarily to fight crime. Their mission is to keep streets and highways safe by reducing traffic accidents, and they are permitted to stop a vehicle a violation of any traffic law—no matter how minor the infraction—because the public believes in that mission. Because of this support, the traffic stop has historically been afforded great latitude in the courts, which have granted significant discretion for officers to stop vehicles, detain drivers and conduct searches based on lower standards of reasonable suspicion or probable cause than apply to buildings, residents and persons.

But it is hard to envision a future in which traffic officers are deployed to enforce traffic laws when driverless cars rarely violate those laws, especially if those infrequent violations seldom result in traffic collisions. It is equally unlikely that officers will have the same discretion they do today to detain and search vehicles or the passengers inside them. As criminals, including terrorists, adopt AV technology, they will be able to move contraband, including weapons and improvised explosives, in vehicles with little fear of detection. In fact, they will not even need to be in a car themselves, as AVs will be able to drive unoccupied. Furthermore, when officers develop probable cause to stop an occupied AV, they might not be allowed to question the occupants, as early AV policy has determined that the software itself can be considered the “driver” of the vehicle. Though the “vehicle exception” to the Fourth Amendment’s search warrant requirement would still apply, it would be difficult for police officers to establish probable cause for such searches without a reason to question passengers whose license status, driving habits or sobriety has little or no bearing on traffic safety.

It would be unrealistic to overstate the traffic stop’s power to detect crime or terrorism. There is no doubt that many criminals are released from traffic stops with nothing worse than a ticket, while greater crimes went undetected by officers who either failed to notice them or were not presented sufficient probable cause to delve deeply enough to discover them. Furthermore, future technology will present new opportunities for police to solve crimes—AVs are going to interact with cyber-physical systems built into the transportation infrastructure of the future, as well as with limitless services based on personal computing and Internet-of-things platforms.

But solving crimes is not the same as detecting them. The capacity of traffic enforcement to interdict crime is not easily measurable, but there are indicators that it is effective. In 2014, the California Highway Patrol—a department whose primary mission is traffic enforcement—made 8,400 felony arrests, most of which resulted from traffic stops. In 2015, traffic enforcement operations focused on drug interdiction resulted in the seizure of approximately ten tons of marijuana, 526 kilograms of heroin, 1,788 kilograms of cocaine, and 978 illegal firearms. These operations also resulted 13,614 arrests and the forfeiture of over $54 million in cash associated with drug trafficking. And despite many sophisticated counterterrorism efforts that have been established in the United States since the 9/11 attacks, the FBI’s Terrorism Screening Center still attributes traffic stops as the most common source of “domestic encounters” with watch-listed terrorism subjects.

Again it is important to stress that traffic enforcement is not primarily a tool to detect street crime, discover contraband or deter terrorism. It is a public safety imperative that society has given great leeway to keep motorists safer on the highway. Driverless cars are going to keep those highways safe without the need for as much enforcement. But a failure to anticipate how those safer highways, patrolled by fewer police with less reason to meet the people inside the driverless cars of the future, is a failure in imagination that police and policymakers can ill afford.

This technology is well beyond its infancy, but it is still new, and it is not too late to shape and influence how it will be integrated into society. Now is the time that government will have the most influence over the developers and corporations that are bringing driverless technology to the road. Those companies need government support, and the government needs to work with them to ensure that regulations, industry standards and public funding are developed alongside the technology to ensure it is introduced cautiously with an eye toward unintended consequences that impact public safety.

I am a highway patrolman, and the last person in my profession has already been born. After today, if a kid wants to grow up and serve to keep you safe in your community, she won’t do it the same way I did. Driverless cars are going to change things, and we need to talk to the people who build them so we can make the best of that change. And we need to start talking today, so that little girl has what she needs to keep us safe tomorrow.