Heading north on I-35, Trooper Hanger spotted a 1977 Mercury Grand Marquis without a license plate. Its driver was Timothy J. McVeigh who, about 90 minutes earlier, had detonated a truck full of explosives in front of the federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people in what was then the worst act of terrorism on American soil. .

The McVeigh affair holds legendary status among police officers, for whom it is an inescapable response to concerns that many roadside checks are pretexts to increase income or seek, without cause, evidence of other crimes. But researchers and some former police chiefs say that for every occasional stroke of luck, hundreds of innocent motorists are subjected to unnecessary scrutiny, expense, and potential danger.

“Because everyone on the road is breaking the traffic rules, it allows the police, who are also in charge of criminal law enforcement, to investigate a crime without meeting any of the standards required for an investigation. criminal, ”said Sarah A. Seo, professor of law at Columbia University and author of a history of traffic law enforcement.

As early as the 1910s, said Dr Seo, government departments discovered that taking over traffic policing meant they could hire officers and expand their investigative powers. In 1920, traffic fines helped the Los Angeles Police Department’s traffic division become “virtually self-sufficient,” according to an annual report at the time.

“We believe that modern police services and their power arose out of the need to fight crime,” said Dr Seo. “It actually started with traffic control. “

While tickets and the threat of punishment deter some potential violators, the need for municipalities to maintain this revenue model appears to be an incentive for many roadside checks today. An analysis of North Carolina court data by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found that “many more notes” were issued when localities were in financial difficulty, suggesting they were “being used as a tool for income generation rather than as a simple means of increasing audiences. security.”

Thirty-one states and Washington, DC, required annual vehicle inspections before 1976, but many abandoned them over time, saying they didn’t bring any safety benefits. Indeed, the Government Accountability Office found that failure of a vehicle component was only a small percentage of crashes, and there was no evidence that things like broken tail lights were significant factors. .

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