No matter who you are, even if the sight of an outlaw biker makes you sick or enrages you or terrifies you, there were a couple of federal law precedents set in the last ten days that you might want to worry about.
They involve the right of two outlaw motorcycle clubs, the Vagos Motorcycle Club in Oregon and the BPM Motorcycle Club in Minnesota, to be let alone. And, you should care about these cases because, as Louis Brandeis put it, “the most basic human right is the right to be let alone.”
In general, under the system of law that has prevailed in the English speaking world for the last seven hundred years, a society of free people benefits most if one must actually commit a crime before one is punished. Ideally, it is not our way to punish someone just because he looks like the sort of a person who would commit a crime.
Seventh Judicial District Judge Michael Jesse and Stearns County District Court Judge Elizabeth Hayden in Minnesota and Federal Judge Owen Panner in Oregon think the obligation of the police to intimidate potential trouble makers outweighs the right of unpopular or eccentric minorities to be let alone.
Minnesota Task Force
The Minnesota cases began when a “task force” of nineteen police officers representing the “Central Minnesota Drug and Gang Task Force,” the Stearns County Sheriff’s Department, something called the “Minnesota Gang Strike Force,” the ever present biker groupies known as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). the Saint Joseph, Minnesota Police Department and the Waite Park Minnesota Police Department decided to halt and harass a weekend run of 70, mostly recreational, bikers in July 2007 near Saint Joseph, Minnesota.
The run was an excuse to ride from the BPM clubhouse in Sartell to a popular biker bar in St. Martin called Doochie’s Bad Company. The bikes moved in a pack. Police hate packs of bikes. And, on the way there the “task force” executed a “Terry Stop” on all 70 bikes.
The legal police action called a Terry Stop is named after the landmark Supreme Court decision in the case Terry v. Ohio in 1968. The decision modifies the Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable searches by allowing a police officer who has a “reasonable, articulable suspicion” that a suspect is about to commit a crime to stop and question that suspect.
The original case involved known burglars loitering outside a closed store in the dark. Terry also specifies that an investigating officer may “frisk” a suspect to determine that the suspect is not carrying a weapon that might endanger that officer. Plainly stated, a cop who stops you may pat that bulge in your pants to make sure it is not a pistol.
The Minnesota Interpretation of Terry
The Minnesota “task force” interpreted this exception to the constitutional prohibition against unreasonable searches to allow them to stop all 70 motorcyclists, run warrant checks on all of them, search all of them and their motorcycles for contraband and weapons and when all that failed to yield an arrest, to write 62 of the 70 bikers traffic tickets. Two of the traffic citations were overturned after a trial and 60 of them have been dismissed.
The case epitomizes police harassment ad twelve of the bikers who were stopped in that run a year and a half ago sued the “Central Minnesota Drug and Gang Task Force,” the agency behind the action, for a token amount of $7,500. And, it was those 12 suits that were dismissed by the two Minnesota judges ten days ago.
Basically, the judges ruled that the bikers did not deserve to be compensated for their time, embarrassment and inconvenience. The police have nothing to lose by violating the Constitution.
The Vagos Case
The Oregon decision by Judge Panner November 19th, is flagrantly unconstitutional. A wealthy defendant would have the opportunity to appeal the decision but the Vagos, despite their alleged criminality, are not wealthy executives. So the decision will stand and is now case law.
The Vagos case is the result of police actions during a run the club held in Josephine County, Oregon during the first weekend in June, 2005.
The County Sheriff there, Dave Daniel, did not know any Vagos but he had heard of the club and he did not like what he had heard. He admittedly thought they were an unsympathetic group-as Mormons, civil rights demonstrators, pacifists, veterans and many other minorities have all been unsympathetic.
So, Sheriff Daniel organized a “reception” for the Vagos that included hosts from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Department of Justice (DOJ), the ATF, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and police from Josephine, Klamath, Douglas, and Jackson Counties in Oregon.
Touching The White Line
Because Sheriff Daniel had the personal belief that the Vagos were a “criminal gang,” they were subjected to constant Terry Stops and traffic stops. Vagos were stopped and cited for having “non-standard” turn signals, for having tire tred that was too thin and for touching the white line at stop signs. Everyone knows all the violations were only excuses for the police to bully people they did not like. There is no debate about that.
The police were refreshingly frank about what really went on. Sheriff Daniel told the Grants Pass Daily Courier, “I hope it was the kind of reception they don’t ever want again, and don’t return to Josephine County.”
A Grants Pass Police Department Lieutenant named Laura Zeliff, admitted to the same paper that there was no “probable cause” or even a reasonable articulable suspicion that the Vagos had come to the county to break a law. “This was a cooperative effort to keep our community safe,” Zeliff actually admitted to a reporter. “We don’t know what their intent is. There’s a reputation there. We don’t know what may come up, so we prepare ourselves.”
The legal question is not whether the motorcyclists were bullied. The question before the court was: Is it legal for police to bully people because the police “don’t know what may come up?”
Apparently it is perfectly legal to bully Vagos.
Seventy Vagos and others filed suit in July 2006 by alleging they had been subjected to unreasonable search and seizure, excessive force, assault, negligence, malicious prosecution, tortuous interference with a business contract and outrageous conduct. This week Judge Panner ruled that none of that happened and told the Vagos that if they didn’t like it they could spend another three years in court appealing it.
Maybe the police are wise. Maybe they will only bully people are really evil. Just hope they don’t get the idea that your church is evil.