A Federal Judge in the Western District of Texas has recently limited the right of Texas state troopers to use the presence of religious symbols as reasonable suspicion for the search of cars stopped on the highways of Texas. “What?,” you ask?”Cops were busting people for having statues of the Virgin Mary in their cars?”Well, not quite. This particular case involved an arrest arising from the traffic stop of an automobile after troopers noticed it had a wobbling tire. While talking to the driver, the arresting officer testified that he observed a religious statue of the Virgin Mary on the dash of the car. The officer further testified that from his experience, ” religious symbols were present in vehicles when drugs were seized from them.” He went on to say that such religious symbols are possible indicators that increase suspicion of drug trafficking. He then claimed to have reasonable suspicion to obtain “consent” from the driver to search his car for drugs, which were later located in the vehicle.
U.S. District Judge Royal Furgeson disagreed. He found First and Fourth amendment violations in this particular search, based upon his previous rulings on searches arising in the Pecos Division of the Western District of Texas.(The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects private, religious expression, both verbal and written; the Fourth Amendment protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures.)
In analyzing the officer’s calculation of “reasonable suspicion”, Judge Furgesen concluded that the use of the presence of a religious symbol was a violation of the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment, and that the consideration of a religious symbol as a factor in deciding to search a vehicle was a violation of both the First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
I see a lot of highway searches in my practice, and I had noticed of late the increasing appearance of Bibles, crosses , decals, statuary, and the like in the testimony of arresting officers in pretrial hearings in highway stop cases. Cops aren’t any more original than anybody else, and once a religious symbol gets mentioned as a factor by one officer, many more such symbols are sure to follow.
Use of these religious criteria should come to a slow halt, but new reasons will appear to replace the old. Its the nature of the game.