They called it the « Kansas Two-Step ».
When a mundane traffic stop was about to end, a state trooper would turn to leave. But after a couple of steps towards the patrol car, the officer would turn and walk back to the stopped driver’s window, hoping to strike up a conversation and find enough reason to search the car for drugs. Maybe the driver would say something the cop thought suspicious, or maybe the driver would simply agree to a search.
But that double-step, which soldiers often used against out-of-state drivers, was part of a « war on motorists » waged by the Kansas Highway Patrol in violation of the Fourth Amendment, a federal judge said Friday in a scathing opinion.
« War is basically a matter of numbers. Stop enough cars and you will definitely discover the drug, » wrote Federal District Court Senior Judge Kathryn H. Vratil. « And what’s wrong with some constitutional rights being trampled along the way? »
Judge Vratil, who was appointed by President George HW Bush, described in scathing terms what he said was the Highway Patrol’s practice of stopping drivers with out-of-state plates on Interstate 70, which cuts through hundreds of miles of Kansas prairie between Colorado and Missouri, both states where marijuana is legal, and extending traffic jams in hopes of looking for contraband. Marijuana is illegal in Kansas.
Judge Vratil wrote that Kansas troops had been trained to « consider the fact that a motorist is traveling to or from a ‘drug source’ or ‘drug destination’ state » when deciding whether they had probable cause to search a car for drugs. In his ruling on Friday, he ordered soldiers to stop disregarding it when dealing with drivers on Interstate 70.
“Now that both states have legalized recreational marijuana, any traveler on I-70 between Colorado and Missouri — that is, anywhere on I-70 in Kansas, traveling in either direction — is by definition traveling to and from a ‘source drug’ state,” the judge wrote.
A Highway Patrol spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for an interview on Friday. A spokeswoman for Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat who appoints the patrol superintendent, also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Judge Vratil proposed, but did not immediately issue, an injunction that would require additional training for soldiers and additional protections for drivers who agree to have their cars searched. While it wasn’t clear how many drivers had arrests that the judge deemed unconstitutional, he cited data suggesting that motorists in other states had been stopped and had their cars scrutinized by drug dogs, at much higher rates than those in Kansan.
Sharon Brett, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, whose attorneys brought the case on behalf of several drivers who said they were double-crossed victims, said she was pleased that the judge « stepped in to stop the department’s widespread misconduct. »
« Today’s decision, » he said in a statement, « validates that the constitutional rights of motorists cannot be sidelined under the guise of a ‘war on drugs’. »