Sunday, May 3, 2015

My encounter with the police

No probable cause.

I have a friend back in Oklahoma, a long-time deputy sheriff who laughingly used to tell me that probable cause really means “probably ‘cause” I want to.  Recently, I learned the truth of that statement.

We in the U.S. have grown up and lived with the knowledge that we are supposed to be free from police interference unless the officer has probable cause to interject himself into our lives.  We learned it in school, we have seen it on TV and we lawyers have argued it many times in our careers - either for or against.  But, always, it has been a linchpin of our criminal justice system.

Interestingly, that is not necessarily true in other countries.  Poland, for example.

Two weeks ago, I took my stepson to the railway station for his return to Gdansk where he lives.  This was in the morning about 9:00 a.m.  I was returning home just casually driving down a city street here when a police officer stepped out into the street and motioned me to pull over and park.  He then approached and asked for the usual: license, insurance and registration.  Fortunately for me, he spoke English so language was not a barrier.

I gave him my registration, insurance, Oklahoma driver’s license, International driver’s permit and my newly-acquired resident card.  He reviewed these, spoke a few words of Polish to his partner and then returned them, telling me I was free to go.

As American citizens, our first thought upon suffering a traffic stop is, “what did I do wrong?”  That was my first thought here.  But, apparently, I had not done anything wrong since there was no mention of any wrongdoing or any other reason for the stop.  I suppose it was, "Probably 'cause" he wanted to.

Later in the day I was discussing it with Alicja.  I told her it was totally foreign to me to have such a thing happen.  She laughed and said the police like to set up in that particular area and just do random traffic stops.  It seems that, here, they do not need probable cause - or any cause.  They set up their little stop area and just randomly decide who to stop.  The do not need any reason to do it.  I noticed these officers did have a hand-held radar unit but I was not speeding.  They simply decided to stop me to do a “control” check as Alicja described it.  If they had wanted to, they could have required me to take a breath test.  (They all carry portable breathalyzers).    And , the limit here is .02.

It was a strange experience for me.  And, it made me appreciate, both as a citizen and as a lawyer, how very fortunate we American citizens are.  Despite the flaws in our system of jurisprudence, it still has many protections and advantages for the ordinary citizen.


  1. Very interesting. Another thing we Americans really do take for granted. And I really am glad you didn't get arrested for anything you may or may not have done. :)

  2. Yes, Deann, so am I. My wife tells me that going to a Polish jail would not be a fun experience.