February 14, 2007
I miss my Fourth Amendment
Posted by: Chris
On an otherwise beautiful drive from Rio De Janeiro to Buzios, a beach resort town three hours away, we came face to gun barrel with the ugly remnants of Brazil's military dictatorship, a full two decades after the civilians wrested control of the government.
About 20 minutes outside of Buzios, a military police roadblock stopped traffic, but not in a random manner. Locals were waved right through, but taxis and private cars holding tourists were pulled off the road by cops holding rifles.
Ours was no exception. This alone would be a clear violation of constitutional rights back in the States. Police must have "reasonable suspicion" of criminal activity to stop a vehicle unless a roadblock is truly random, or stops everyone.
Once stopped, we three passengers were searched by hand, all pockets emptied. Our Brazilian driver was asked for documents, but no effort was made to search his person.
Coming up empty, the police turned to our bags, and they were meticulously searched; no pocket was left unzipped, no potential hidden gap left unchecked. These searches were done with absolutely no probable cause, an even more serious violation of the Fourth Amendment, if we were home in the U.S.
I had a sinking feeling as the military police officer began searching the plastic bag where I carry my random medicine and workout supplements. I've used the same bag for years, and it holds all sorts of meds that aren't in identifying bottles or packages. I was a sitting duck, and the cop didn't miss the opportunity.
He produced five hard white tablets, about the size of Rolaids or Tums, several of them so weathered from months in the bag that they had turned brown on the edges. The officer proceeded to tell me that he didn't recognize these pills from any Brazilian medicine he'd seen, and he suspected they were synthetic narcotics, possibly ecstacy.
It was a riduculous claim, given the size and hard shell of the tablets, and the fact they were just sitting open in a bag full of meds, but the officer was undaunted. While he went to confer with his partners, another officer approached my boyfriend, and warned us that we would be losing a great deal of time while he "verified" the contents of the tablets.
As the officer warned and warned and warned about the need to call in other officers, the shakedown was clearly on. It was crystal clear to all concerned that, regardless of the tablets' actual content, we could make the inconvenience go away for a price.
We stood our ground, though our hearts were pounding. They could take all the time they wanted. We had nothing to hide. We all sat down in the shade, giving a clear indication that we were prepared for a long delay.
After more consultations with more officers, and more cell phone conversations, the officers returned, lectured us about carrying medicine outside its packaging, and gave us the Portuguese equivalent, "We'll let you go this time."
Back in the car, our driver told us these sorts of police stops are routine on the road between Rio and Buzios, as we've heard they are between São Paulo and Rio, and they're not aimed at confiscated drugs. They're aimed at confiscating money, whether from tourists or well-heeled Brazilians.
In retrospect, we should consider ourselves fortunate. I had been carrying a wad of cash with my passport, which the searching officer no doubt saw before he came to the medicine bag in my second piece of luggage. Without blaming the victim, I'll certainly take it as a life lesson not to carry any unmarked medication or supplements.
It's the third time during my stay in Rio that we've been stopped without cause and searched by the police, but by far the most serious and threatening. On one level, it angers me to think that we were stopped without cause and searched as if we posed some sort of threat. It frustrates me on an entirely different level, of course, that the goal of the search was blackmail.
But what really enfuriates me is that the Brazilian military, which still operates with far too free a hand, is wasting precious resources shaking down tourists and not fighting the grotesque rate of violent crime throughout the country, but especially in Rio De Janeiro city and state.
In fact, our shakedown occurred the same day that nine people were killed in gun battles in ongoing violent battles for control of the city's "favelas," or shantytowns. From the BBC:
In recent months some favelas have been taken over by militias - consisting of retired and off-duty police officers. They offer to rid communities of drug gangs in return for protection money. The new state governor, Sergio Cabral, says he won't tolerate the involvement of serving police officers in parallel security forces.
The drug gangs that operate in the favelas and from inside the country's prison system would be a serious problem, if the police were rife with corruption or not. But whether due to chronically low compensation or poor discipline, far too many law enforcement officers succumb to the temptation of illegal profit-making.
The violence is so bad that there's a web site, RioBodyCount.com, that's tallying the dead and wounded — 138 dead and 73 injured since Feb. 1 — to pressure the goverment into taking stronger action.
Aside from the contribution that dirty cops make to the violence that plagues this beautiful country, I am reminded of the warning that "absolute power corrupts absolutely." The constitutional protections we Americans take for granted — including our Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure — aren't just protecting us from overzealous law enforcement and "anti-terrorism" measures, they're protecting us from the corruption that would inevitably follow if the police were given more power over the citizenry.
(Photo of the highway leading into Buzios courtesy of my friend and fellow passenger, Jeff DeKorte, who is blogging about his Brazilian travels.)
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