How did you get the idea for the book?
This is often one of the first questions people ask because POLICING THE OPEN ROAD’s argument that the mass production of cars would have vast consequences on the relationship between citizens and the police seems obvious, but no one has written about it before. I knew that I wanted to write a history of law enforcement in the War on Drugs, and I started by reading Fourth Amendment cases. This constitutional provision prohibits “unreasonable searches and seizures,” which includes stops of people and cars—the very first moment of the police encounter. That’s when I realized two important themes: (1) a lot of Fourth Amendment cases involved car stops, and (2) car cases were not just a sub-category of Fourth Amendment cases, but the central story about policing the American car-dominated society.
Will autonomous cars change the policing of cars?
Short answer: Yes.
Longer answer: POLICING THE OPEN ROAD shows that modern policing began with the need to enforce traffic laws. Many police encounters began—and still do—with a traffic violation because the police do not have to wait long to stop anyone for a traffic citation. During a vehicle stop, if a police officer gets suspicious that the car’s occupants have any criminal evidence, usually drugs, then our criminal procedural laws allow the police to start investigating. If successful, a traffic stop can ultimately end with a criminal charge. In a world with autonomous cars that are programmed to follow traffic laws, this process would not even get started. To stop a car in the future, the police would need probable cause that the car is transporting drugs, and that will be a lot harder to tell just by looking at streams of perfectly obedient autonomous cars driving by.
Does this history tell us how we can change our laws to eradicate Driving While Black?
History doesn’t tell us what we should do, which is why POLICING THE OPEN ROAD ends not by making the case for any particular policy or legal reforms, but by describing the consequences of the history told in the book. What history can show us is how our problems arose, which can help us figure out possible solutions. Here’s one: if it’s easy to abuse criminal procedures during traffic stops, then we might consider separating the duties of traffic law and criminal law enforcement. Of course, there are lots of details to iron out. For example, what can a traffic law enforcement officer do if s/he sees criminal evidence while writing a ticket? This gets to a larger point in the book: It’s difficult to put limits on discretionary policing. The million-dollar question is, would our society consider de-criminalization—starting with drug possession but even including more general quality-of-life violations—as a way to rely less on discretionary policing? This is not a question of history, but I hope POLICING THE OPEN ROAD can contribute to a necessary conversation for our country.