Yet Another Unconstitutional Search of the Driving Equality Van

I was unconstitutionally searched again today. This is the fifth search of the van and the third illegal search. This experience has left me feeling small, powerless, helpless, and deeply offended.

I was pulled over for speeding in Indiana. The officer said I was doing 77 in a 55. I thought the speed limit was 75, as it has been the last three months of my trip, so I apologized and took the ticket.

While the officer that pulled me over was in his car, running my vehicle and identity background check, another officer came to my side window. I rolled it down and we had a conversation. We talked about the Driving Equality project, gay rights, traveling, Yosemite, and filmmaking. He asked what I had in the van. I let him stick his head in the window and look in the back. This is not something I would normally do, but he had been polite so I allowed it.

We talked a little more. He asked me about the Buddha on my dashboard and who was funding the Driving Equality project. Then the first officer came to my window and handed me a ticket. I don’t know how much it will cost me. He told me that the court will mail me the actual citation. He handed me back my license and registration. That is when the other officer asked me if he could search the van. I said no and that I would like to get going. He asked if he could run his K-9 around the van. I said no again. He then told me to have a good night and that I was free to go. I started driving again.

I starting thinking about what I would write on this blog. How interesting it was that I had been asked by a police officer if he could search the van. I refused, and because he had neither probably cause or a warrant, he understood that he could not search the vehicle and actually let me be on my way. I was surprised, but uplifted by the experience. Maybe there are some good cops that actually do follow the law. Go America! Go 4th Amendment!

I drove for about 20 more minutes. It was 2:00AM and I was looking for a rest area to sleep for the night. As I was driving, about 15 minutes after I was pulled over, I saw a police car on the side of the road ahead of me. I was not worried because I wasn’t speeding. (The speed limit was 70 now). Yet, as I passed the police car, he turned on his headlights and started to follow me. He did not have his blue lights on, but stayed close to my tail.

After a few minutes of being followed, I saw a rest stop and decided to pull in. The police car did not follow me, he kept on driving. (I realize now that he was alerted to my vehicle by the first officer, started tailing me, then reported back to the first officer that I had pulled off the road.)

At the rest stop, I got out of the van and head into the bathroom. I glanced back at the van and saw a police car pull in behind the van. I wondered if they were there for me. That would be a strange coincidence. Then an officer got out of the car with a dog. They proceeded to circle my van.

I went back to the van and asked the officer if he had a warrant to search the van with his dog. He said that he was conducting an “open air” search and didn’t need a warrant. I’m sure this is true, as our 4th amendment rights have been eroded away by the Supreme Court. So I stood there and watched the dog sniff around my car. Four other police cars showed up. Now there were five police officers there watching the dog.

The officer put the dog back in the car and walked up to me. He told me that the dog got a “hit” on the van. I have heard this one before. He told me that he now had probable cause to search the van. I explained that the van has been searched by two other drug dogs and that they have found nothing. I told him that I understand it is common practice for police officers to claim that the K-9 has a hit in order to fake probable cause. I asked him to bring the dog out again and show me the dog’s action that indicate a hit. He told me to give him the keys.

Officer Lankford of the Indiana State Police (Badge #7565), a dog, and four other police officers spent the next hour tearing apart the Driving Equality van. They took apart film equipment, my dashboard, the lining of the van, opened the hood, took out the air-filter, and went through every personal item that I own. It was degrading. I sat on the bench and took pictures with my phone. The feeling of helplessness and powerlessness was torture. While the officers were searching the van, another cop went around to all the trash cans and looked through them for drugs I might have tried to stash. It was ridiculous.

I felt violated. I was violated. My 4th amendment rights were violated. Of course they found no drugs. I haven’t touch a drug in almost 4 years. I bought the van straight from the dealership. They cleaned it inside and out and then covered it with Amoral. When I got it home, I scrubbed it down as well. There are no drugs, traces of drugs, residues, or odors.

Eventually, they stopped looking. It was now 3:00AM. The officer pulled out my pill box and asked me what the pills were. I told him what medicines I was taking. He asked to see the prescription bottles. I got in the van and showed them to him. He was trying to find any reason to bust me. He was positive I smoked weed and did drugs.

I saw sitting in the back of the van, showing the office my prescription bottles when I heard a loud clunk. I looked up to see the bottom part of my dashboard missing. It broke off and all of my stuff was on the floor. I asked what had happened. He told me that the dog had broken the dashboard. (Interesting how he tried to make it look like it wasn’t broken, in hopes that I would drive away before it fell apart.) I told him that that was unacceptable. He said that he would give me a claim to file.

Then he told me that he had been hoping I would stop at the rest area so that he could search my van. He had wanted to search the van back when I was stopped, but because the other officer had given me my paperwork back, I was free to go.

I told him that I needed his name and badge number. He gave the information to me. Then I collected the identification of the other police officers on the scene. Officer Lankford went to his car to get me the paperwork I need to file a claim for my broken dashboard. Except that he didn’t have the paperwork in his car. He said that it was at the police station. It was now 3:30AM. We all got in our cars and I followed Officer Lankford 20 minutes down the road to the police station. We went inside and I got the paperwork.

Before I left, I looked him right in the eyes and told him that I was very disappointed in him. I said that we had a good conversation back at the traffic stop and when he asked if I had drugs in the car I told him the truth. When he asked if I had been arrested before, I told him the truth. But he decided to have me tailed for 20 minutes, and then jumped on the van when I pulled over at a rest stop. He then searched my vehicle for an hour, pulling apart the van. He even broke my dashboard.

He said that it was “his training” that taught him to look for signs when talking to a suspect. He said that something signaled him that I was hiding something. I asked him what it was that I did that signaled him. He said that he couldn’t tell me. I asked him how he felt about being wrong, and his dog being wrong. I asked him to apologize. I looked him right in the eye and told him that I was disappointed and that he needed to be more careful. He didn’t look at me. He said that he wasn’t wrong and didn’t do anything wrong.

After getting the paperwork and scolding the police officer (by the way, I had my dad, who is also my attorney, on the phone in my pocket this whole time incase anything happened) I took off down the highway.

I live in this van. Everything has its place. Living in such a small place, I have to keep it clean and organized or else I’d be breaking things and going crazy. Now I have a broken dashboard, and everything that was in the center console is in a pile on the floor. (Actually, I just tried to duct tape it back together and put everything back in the console, but as I’m writing this it all came crashing down again.)

I am going to file the paperwork to be reimbursed for the dashboard, after I pay to have it fixed so that I can sell the van when I return. Hopefully the state of Indiana will reimburse me. I took pictures. I am also filling a complaint against Officer Lankford, who conduced an unwarranted search of my vehicle.

I am concerned that I was targeted by Officer Lankford after our conversation about gay rights and the Driving Equality project. His actions are unacceptable. This kind of discrimination is exactly what I devote my life to stopping. I will use this as a learning experience.

This trip has been amazing and incredibly positive. The only sore spot has been the illegal searches. They are degrading. They make me disappointed that America is not all it should be. But I’ll keep working on it.

UPDATE: I am in Kalamazoo, Michigan today. I visited the local police department and asked the K-9 unit to perform a search of the van using the drug dog. I believe that Indiana State Police Officer Lankford was lying when he said that his dog got a “positive hit” on my van. I wanted to prove it.

The Kalamazoo K-9 did conducted the same exact search of my vehicle that the Indiana State Police did. He ran the dog along the perimeter of my van, circling three times. The dog smelled all over the vehicle, climbing underneath, and jumping up to sniff the engine.

Exactly ONE day after the Indiana State Police’s drug dog supposedly got a positive hit on my vehicle, the Kalamzoo drug dog found NO drugs, scent, trace, residue, or evidence of drugs in my vehicle. This backs up my assertion that the Indiana State Police K-9 did NOT get a “positive hit” on my van, but rather, Officer Lankford, lied about the dog smelling drugs in order to establish probable cause to search my vehicle. This is illegal and a blatant violation of my 4th amendment rights.

Why, if there was no indication of drugs in my vehicle, did Officer Lankford and four other police officers tear apart my van? I believe it is because of the conversation I had earlier in the night with Officer Lankford. He knew I am a gay activist from Massachusetts working on a project to promote gay rights. He knew I was on my way to South Bend, Indiana to conduct an interview for the project. I believe I was the target of anti-gay harassment by Officer Lankford and the Indiana State Police.

Below if a video clip of the Kalamazoo Police K-9 unit doing the same search that the Indiana State Police did yesterday. The Kalamazoo K-9 finds no drugs, scent, trace, residue, or evidence of drugs. After the video the, officer tells me that there is no scent of any drugs in my van and that if the dog had gotten even a trace of drugs, he would have reacted, indicating a “positive hit”.

If you like what we are doing, please help us continue the project by making a contribution.

Click on photographs for larger versions.

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13 Responses to Yet Another Unconstitutional Search of the Driving Equality Van

  1. Chris, this is an unfortunate story but all too common in law enforcement today. Your rights absolutely were violated. Be glad that this “officer” didn’t plant drugs on you when he didn’t find any in his search. Your friendliness may have spared you that disgrace.

    Be careful!

  2. Leslie Ford Williams says:

    As a teacher of social studies, much of the learning centered on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, I continue to be appalled by obviously anti-Constitutional law enforcement procedures that seem to have complete disregard for ALL our citizens’ basic, inalienable rights.
    This project, so daring in its scope and sequence, and so brave in its execution, should be included in any curriculum that proposes to educate our kids on rights and freedoms associated with the Constitution. It will certainly be included in mine.

  3. David Johnson says:

    1. I am not sure what possible police purpose is served by asking about the funding for Driving Equality. This suggests to me that he was acting on general, unsubstantiated suspicion.

    2. You have outlined several possible instances of wrongful conduct. The key is not to let this drop. I am sure that the police count on interstate travelers’ “moving on” and forgetting about the abuse.

  4. Jean Wickford says:

    I am so sorry you had to suffer this disgrace. I hope you peruse this legally, although the legal system’s a joke. Perhaps you should take your story to the local media.

  5. Donna says:

    Chris, you absolutely need to take this to the media in Indiana. As a citizen of Indiana I am embarrassed by the actions of Officer Lankford and the other officers on the scene of the search. 5 state police vehicles sat idle while this nonsense was going on? This is what our tax money is paying for?

    Where in exactly in Indiana did this occur and what highway were you traveling on?

    You need to pursue charges and get the media on this. I did a quick scan and none of the major media outlets have covered this story.

  6. Not a victim says:

    Commentary
    Keen Sense of Smell Sends One to Jail
    08/28/09 A commuter’s phone call to the Indiana State Police, about an erratic diver on the Toll Road, landed one man in jail Tuesday. Trooper Steve Spallinger stopped the west bound vehicle on…
    08-27-09 [publisher: Administrator]

    08/28/09 A commuter’s phone call to the Indiana State Police, about an erratic diver on the Toll Road, landed one man in jail Tuesday. Trooper Steve Spallinger stopped the west bound vehicle on the Indiana Toll Road near the 24 mile marker in Porter County.

    Trooper Spallinger, assigned to the Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Division, stopped the large recreational vehicle for speeding and was assisted by Senior Trooper Ben Jones III. Trooper Jones later requested the assistance of Trooper Brandon Lankford and his K-9 partner Schatten. Trooper Lankford walked Schatten around the vehicle and received a positive drug indication from his dog near an exterior storage compartment. The duo searched the interior of the vehicle and the dog alerted on a container. The container was found sitting next to an access opening to the exterior storage compartment. The container looked like an ordinary aerosol spray bottle. However, it was discovered to have a false bottom and contained marijuana. The container belonged to Gerry R. Woodward Jr., 36, of Saulk Illinois.

  7. Chris Mason says:

    This is an interesting story with no relevance to my case. It appears that this vehicle had drugs on board, that is why the K-9 reacted with a positive drug indication.

    In my case, there were no drugs, no trace, residue, or scent or drugs, as proved by a K-9 unit the very next day. In my case, Officer Lankford lied about the dog reacting positive in order to search my vehicle. In doing so, Officer Landford violated my constitution rights. He will have to face the consequences of his actions.

  8. […] Mason was let go but was detained again 20 minutes later at a rest area. The activist alleges that Indiana State Police trooper Brandon Lankford targeted him for persecution after the trooper questioned Mason about Driving Equality and gay […]

  9. Leo Mammen says:

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  10. BB says:

    This is why I hate cops. Well, one of the many reasons.

  11. Alex K says:

    This is absolutely ridiculous. I just read this while sitting a political science class looking up examples of unconstitutional car searches. Car searches are only constitutional only if there is probable cause or a specific warrant, and if the procedures are in the policy manual and are carried out consistently. I hope you haven’t had to endure this sort of treatment since then.

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