Less than a week after July 4, a day when Americans celebrate our freedom and liberty, Sandra Bland was pulled over for a traffic violation. The lawful traffic stop that escalated into an arrest and culminated in Ms. Bland's untimely death in a jail cell on July 13 has everyone talking about civil rights in America.
As we debate the boundaries of law enforcement's authority, I am reminded of my own recent run-in with a traffic cop. While I currently live in the state if Texas, where Ms. Bland was pulled over, my incident occurred on the other side of the world in a place widely considered friendly and accommodating: New Zealand. As a visitor in any foreign country, I never expect my rights as an American to supersede those of the nation where I am traveling. But things just didn't seem right when I was given a mandatory road-side breathalyzer test, just because I was speeding.
Now this test would have been warranted if I had, say, rammed into a sheep when it wandered into the road, and a cop had found me slumped over the wheel of my car with my speech slurred, my eyes bloodshot and a pile of empty beer bottles in the front seat. That's what we in America call "probable cause."
But in New Zealand, probable cause isn't a necessary prerequisite for administering a breathalyzer test. According to the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA), "A police officer can ask you to take a passive breath test or breath screening test if: you are suspected of drinking and driving or you are signaled to stop at a Police alcohol check point."
Here's the thing: these alcohol check points seem to appear and disappear at the whim of New Zealand law enforcement. The NZTA website doesn't provide information about how the check points are regulated. The best way to find out about police alcohol check points is, to the consternation of New Zealand law enforcement, Facebook.
There are thousands of followers on Facebook pages like "Auckland checkpoint and traffic watch" and "Checkpoint watch whangerei." These pages allow users to post the specific sites of police alcohol check points and they are updated regularly. Too bad there wasn't a Facebook page about police alcohol check points in Timaru, the small town where I was pulled over. Had I been able to consult one, I might have avoided a breach of my civil rights.
I was pulled over after an officer clocked me for driving too fast through a speed trap in the center of Timaru. My car was littered with empty water bottles and crinkled up road maps, evidence of a long road trip, not intoxication. My two children were in the back seat of the car, holding guidebooks and more maps. They had been serving as my navigators since my GPS was out of service. It was dusk, and we were only two kilometers from our hotel. I just wanted the officer to give me my traffic citation so I could head to the hotel and enjoy a glass of New Zealand sauvignon blanc. How ironic.
Instead, I was informed that in New Zealand, everyone who is caught speeding must take a breathalyzer test. At the time, I was ignorant of the actual law. The officer needed probable cause to administer the test (which seemed far-fetched given my situation), or I needed to be at a police alcohol check point. As far as I could tell, there was no evidence that I was at a police alcohol check point when I was stopped. There were no warning signs, no traffic cones, no other cars and no other cops. The officer never mentioned anything about it. I presume that if I had argued against taking the breathalyzer test, he would have told me that I was in one.
When I look back on the situation, I understand that in New Zealand, innocent drivers like me will be inconvenienced by mandatory breathalyzer tests in order to nab someone who is driving under the influence of alcohol. And that drunk driver, if not caught, could bring harm, even death, to others and/or to him/herself. Was I frustrated that I was delayed in getting to the hotel? Absolutely. Was I upset that I had to perform this test with my children looking on from inside the car, confused and bewildered? Of course.
The fact that I was compelled to take a breathalyzer test is certainly on the low end of the spectrum of potential civil rights abuses. The spate of deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of American law enforcement in recent months, and now the death of Sandra Bland, casts a shadow on the notion of what it means to live in the land of the free. Nonetheless, a minor infraction is still an infraction. And in New Zealand, their approach to catching drunk drivers gives law enforcement the authority to act based on the assumption that people are guilty before proven innocent. It flies in the face of the principles outlined in numerous amendments to the American Constitution, as well as thousands of years of legal precedence, dating back to Roman Emperor Justinian. While suffering inconveniences for the greater good is part of living in a society, citizens must question the boundaries that restrict their individual freedoms.
Fortunately, the United States does not use the New Zealand model of police entrapment to catch drunk drivers. And, to my benefit, we also don't extradite our citizens back to foreign countries where they have violated the speed limit. New Zealand law enforcement may have collected my DNA through a breathalyzer test, but they failed to collect my money for the traffic citation before I left the country. Since I can't find the ticket here at home, am I the one who's bending the rules?