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    February 14, 2007

    I miss my Fourth Amendment

    Posted by: Chris

    Rj_road_trip_01 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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    1. Andoni on Feb 14, 2007 9:41:09 AM:

      Well thank God you guys are OK! This could just as easily have turned out badly.

      As for the Fourth Amendment, I believe the U.S. is on the same road to losing these precious rights as Brazil. Not there yet, of course, but every time the administration asks for more powers to fight terrorism, our Fourth Amendment is whittled away. The Patriot Act is one big culprit in the erosion of these rights.

      Just as aside, Hillary voted for the not so patriotic (if you consider Constitutional protections) Patriot Act twice.

    1. KJ on Feb 14, 2007 12:10:55 PM:

      Such corruption is so entrenched that the thought of significant change seems remote apart from an overwhelming, unified response of the population.

    1. Gary on Feb 19, 2007 6:03:06 PM:


      Glad you are OK.

      This is a clear example of something I tell every queen that talks of leaving the US because they can't get married.

      Some of the stuff here is messed up, admittedly, and not fair; but at least here you can challenge the things you find unfair. In the US you don't need to worry about things like this.

      We may be messed up in many ways, but we are better than most, and for that I am thankful.

      I hope we can hurry up and get our shit together in this country so you can your partner can come back here should you like to, and be safe, protected, and equal under the law! I know in your situation, the US was not an option, so my above comments weren't targeted at you guys. I reserve those for the casual whining gay man that thinks things are sooooooo terrible here that he and his man will leave.

      It's a clear reminder that there are other perils you may have to challenge to defend you love elsewhere in exchange for the ideal of equality.

    1. "Any queen" on Feb 21, 2007 2:07:03 PM:

      Um, Gary, "any queen" that left the US would probably go to Canada, where they wouldn't have to deal with this stuff because their Charter of Rights & Freedoms is even more expansive than the US. It was Crain's own choice to go to Brazil, so he gets what he gets, just as he says that people who infect others with HIV should go free, because, according ot him, it is the choice of those people who get infected to "let it happen" to them. So it's quite hilarious listening to Crain complaining about a lack of rights, while he still maintains his campaign of wanting to exclude others (most notably transgenders) from rights even after being bashed in the head in Amsterdam. Hypocrite much? I can't believe after that experience, he's still fighting to exclude others. Maybe after thie experience he will put his wayward energies into expanding rights in Brazil instead of trying his best (but still failing miserably) to sabotage other people's potential rights in the US. Knowing him, I doubt it. He wants to see how far he can stretch his penchant for hypocrisy into astronomical reasons.

    1. "Every queen" on Feb 21, 2007 2:09:07 PM:

      By the way, this is one "queen" who has vowed to stay in the US to make sure that the people like Crain are NOT listened to and transgender people are included AT THE VERY LEAST in the hate crimes law soon to be voted on by the new Democratic congress, if not ENDA as well. Just FYI.

    1. Kevin on Feb 23, 2007 4:12:28 PM:

      Jeez Louise -- would all you "queens" go chill your coochies out on a block of ice?

    1. Martha McDevitt-Pugh on Mar 9, 2007 6:16:14 AM:

      Chris "chose" to move to Brazil? That's like saying I chose to move to the Netherlands because the US doesn't recognize my relationship with my wife.

      A US citizen who falls in love with a foreigner of the same sex has no right to be in the United States with their partner/spouse/family. You choose your partner OR your country.

      Living in exile you lose your rights and protections as a US citizen.

    1. Every queen on Mar 18, 2007 11:16:54 PM:

      Martha McDevitt-Pugh, Crain has only himself to blame for being forced to choose between expanded gay rights and a fourth amendment. He constantly congratulated Republicans for every bone that they threw him, while excoriated Democrats for not being 100% perfect on every single issue.

      Crain doesn't really care about GLBT rights... he only cares about those rights that will benefit him & help w/his personal relationship with his partner. This can be seen in his constant transphobic vitriol, especially inclusion of transgender people in the hate crimes bill.

      He has been a Republican for years, and I hope that allegiance paid off for him. I know it didn't for millions of other Americans , GLBT, and non-GLBT alike.

      You know what they say, Crain... you play with fire...

      And yes, he 'chose' to

    1. Daniel on Mar 21, 2007 3:13:39 PM:

      A friend of mine that lives in Minas Gerais has said that there is much crime near the big cities like Rio and Sao Paulo. Beware of the barbies, thugs, and 'military police.'

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