by jMyles
last updated: Aug. 31, 2017, 2:42 p.m.

Our bus was searched and trashed by federal police.
The 4th amendment felt deeply dead.

Our 'welcome home' was an instrusive and un-American search of our entire bus by the US Forest Service.  The obtuse and childish nature of the event was a bit depressing; the cops themselves didn't seem very proud of where their careers had taken them.

One of the worst downsides to living on a bus in the USA is the legal (and extra-legal) vulnerability that comes from carting your home around on the public roadways. You see, our government, through the intellectually pure and honest Supreme Court, has decided that vehicles enjoy almost none of the basic textual protections of the 4th amendment against unreasonable search and seizure.

Unsurprisingly, this erosion of a bedrock basic freedom has nearly always been based on the idea that prohibition - of alcohol in the early 20th century and of a relatively small but substantial segment of the pharmacopoeia today - is a public policy so crucial to society that it must trump even the plain language of our founding documents.

Our experience at The Rainbow Gathering - which we, like most gatherers, attend in order to celebrate freedom on the July 4th holiday - an irony that continues to produce both laughter and tears - was utterly unreasonable; no thoughtful adult can possibly conclude otherwise.

The trick works like this:

1) Find a pretext to conduct a vehicle traffic stop. In our case it was the wheel of Chelsea's bicycle allegedly partly obstructing our license plate.
2) Bring a dog along to assert that there is an odor of some proscribed object, such as plant matter from a criminal gardening ring.

It's almost difficult to maintain a straight-face while outlining the ludicrous, childish legal justification for the above - the contortions of logic required to eviscerate these basic protections read in such a way as to convey a smirk and a raise-of-the-eyebrows, as if written by an arthritic, retired supervillain still able to operate a feather quill, but needing to train naive henchmen to fulfill the twists and turns of the campy, predictable plot:

  • The Supreme Court, in Carroll v United States, a prohibition-era liquor case, held that probable cause alone is sufficient to conduct a complete search of a vehicle being conveyed on a public roadway. This was largely based on the reduced expectation of privacy in a moving vehicle and the exigency created by the fact that the vehicle can take off with the evidence.

  • Then, in 2013, in Florida v. Harris, the Supreme Court (unanimously!) ruled that a dog's say-so is sufficient cause for such a search. Since then, it has repeatedly ruled that, even though the reliability of a drug dog's indication is barely better then a coin-flip, these searches aren't in violation of the 4th amendment. (Thanks to Radley Balko for his tireless reporting on this topic).

So, at the end of the day, police can essentially toss or seize our home at any time.

These decisions are fairly easy reading - it is obvious to any lay person that they are full of holes.

So let's pause here for a second and see if the conduct we experienced, backed by the Supreme Court, comports with the plain reading of the actual text of the 4th amendment to the Constitution of the United States:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The incongruence of our experience with this text is obvious, but I'll point out just a small sample of the elements which caused us to feel unprotected by the rule of law:

  1. Even if the dog's indication did constitute "probable cause," the dog is unable to testify, unable to understand the consequence of oath or affirmation, and unable to stand for cross-examination. In fact, we weren't even permitted to see the gesture made by the dog to "indicate" that it had detected the presence of contraband.

  2. Even if somehow all of the concerns of point 1 (and thus Florida v. Harris) were not at issue, our home was still completely trespassed upon by agents of the state, the interests of which included, at worst, the presence of a plant which is legal in the state in question in the first place (although of course the national government claims authority to exact its own prohibition against cannabis, despite no analog to the 18th amendment having been passed).

  3. There was nothing "particular" about the place that was searched or the things that were seized. Our entire bus, inside and out, was torn apart and left in a completely trashed state.

  4. There was absolutely no exigency about this situation - we were some 5 feet from the spot where we intended to park, adjusting our bus to fit. The bus subsequently remained in that location for a week, providing ample time to adjudicate the matter if necessary. Even if we had wanted to flee, a school bus on forest roads can't possibly evade dozens of police SUVs swarming the entire forest.

This is what democracy looks like for our family:
awful interior re-decorating at the hands of federal police.

Even though we weren't charged with a crime (and thus don't get a day in court to dispute the actions of these government officials), they left our bus a complete wreck.  It's hard not to get a bit angry looking at these photos.

Notch wonders what the fuck happened to his bedroom.

Even though we weren't charged with a crime (and thus don't get a day in court to dispute the actions of these government officials), they left our bus a complete wreck.  It's hard not to get a bit angry looking at these photos. Even though we weren't charged with a crime (and thus don't get a day in court to dispute the actions of these government officials), they left our bus a complete wreck.  It's hard not to get a bit angry looking at these photos.

Now, look: it's no secret that I do not view the government as a legitimate arbiter of my diet. I don't give a good hoot which plants are formally designated by the state to be of lackluster medical or spiritual value, and, in light of the legal history on the matter, I don't view as lawful any act of the national congress to advance such a measure (although I do recognize the authority of the states to make their own bad laws). It happens that the State of Oregon, in which the constitution vests police power, and in whose borders this incident took place, does not prohibit the possession or sale of cannabis.

But I suspect that even the most ardent prohibitionists didn't mean for this policy to be understood in such a way as to create an environment of outright insecurity in the home of an otherwise law-abiding young family, much less at the over-reaching hands of a agency whose leadership and statuatory authority originate on the other side of the continent. That federal agents can do such a thing under an untainted color of law makes a complete mockery of our legal system and its traditions.

Anyway, the plot thickened a bit: after leaving this awful mess which took hours to clean-up, we discovered that they had taken several containers of plant-matter, totalling a few grams, at least some of which was most certainly legal even under a most liberal reading of federal law, including an expensive kava extract that we occasionally enjoy.

After this hours-long ordeal was over, we were not issued a citation, but a "warning," conveniently depriving us of our day-in-court to contest this conduct.

We were issued a citation for the matter of the obstructed license plate, but it had the incorrect court date on it, so it was later dismissed. While a clerical error is the most likely explanation, the cynic in me wonders if such clerical errors didn't happen in each case where the defendants were perceived to be without fear and ready to produce a vigorous and perhaps costly contest in court.

What we experienced was extra-judicial punishment, plain and simple. The police officers behaved like toddlers who were left overnight at a closed toy store. They completely trashed our entire home.

Since we enjoy a presumption of innocence until the government proves otherwise, and since the government has declined its opportunity to advance any theories about our guilt, all of the harassment and instrusion we endured is understandable only in the extra-legal space. I believe that these officers knew very well that they had no intention of actually enforcing the federal laws against cannabis, but engaged in this conduct because they have been trained to be intimidating and to dissuade participation in The Rainbow Gathering.

I have no qualms about keeping the company of great human beings, even if they belong to communities viewed as undesirable by the state. Many of my friends are members of continually targeted and harassed groups: drug policy reform activists, open-source software developers, journalists, permaculture enthusiasts, environmental conservationists, and so on. That the state feels a need to drive wedges in these communities, even by the kind of concrete and thuggish intimidation tactics on display here, is a testament to its dwindling capacity and usefulness in today's world.

They not only intruded upon and destroyed the ambiance of our home, but also repeatedly threatened Chelsea with violence. If you know Chelsea, you can probably understand that she's a horribly intimidating figure - at nearly 115 pounds, and holding a 2-year old, it's understandable that she had to be contained.

Fibonacci, who of course had no understanding of the condition in which we found ourselves, was running around playing in the woods. The cops, several times, told her to "control that child - this is your last warning" and "I'll put you in cuffs in front of your kid - just watch."

These over-the-top threats were so obviously idle as to be easy to shrug off, but they nevertheless left us feeling a great longing for security.

It was "the right of the people to be secure" that felt most missing at first.

But after a few minutes of talking to these people, the dignity of the nation felt equally at stake.

Although we didn't answer any questions about the contents of our bus or any other element of their ongoing investigation, we did engage in (barely) high-school level civics chit-chat with several of the officers, and this was possibly the most shocking part. We quickly discovered that these people possessed the sociopolitical sophistication of 6th-graders - and I don't blame, belittle, or even think less of them for it. It was plain to hear that their training had specifically been honed to achieve this end.

Some of the classic statist tropes imparted to us by the US Forest Service Police (put 80's elevator music in your head and scroll these upward in your imagination):

  • "USA: Love it or leave it"
  • I don't make the laws, I just enforce them (but I stand behind them too)
  • Just tell me where the weed is and everything will be fine
  • It's your own fault your privacy is being invaded
  • The dog is never wrong! (and if it is, it must have smelled residue)

At one point, an officer asked me, "can we agree that drugs are bad?"

I was relatively quick on my feet in response to this (and I have debate and media practice with experts like Tom Angell, Irina Alexander, and Eric Sterling to thank for that ability). I told him that 'drugs are bad' is a childish and outmoded way to consider the role of government in regulating psychoactive compounds, and that some drug use is just fine. He asked me "what drug use is just fine," and I replied that, for example, a cup of coffee in the morning has never been known to cause blood to run in the streets.

And do you know what he said in response? I wish I were kidding here. He said:

"Well, I don't drink coffee."

There seemed to be an affirmative blockage to any kind of critical thinking. I chose not to seek clarification on whether he was advocating prohibition of coffee, mostly because I had better things to think about, like the flavor of popcorn.

These people had forced themselves to pretend to believe that it was perfectly plausible that an evil plant, combined with the olfactory capacity of a dog, were sufficient cause and reasoning to abandon one of the most sacred civil traditions of our ostensibly proud country. Their suspicions about my having broken an idiotic law were justification for their flagrant and thuggish breaking of the plain language of the constitution.

Now look: I don't care for the state, but I am far from anti-cop. Even when the state falls, I will honor and praise those who set their own interests aside to keep the peace and justice in our communities. I think that the information age will bring the contemporanous fall of the state and the creation of an environment in which policing can be a great and noble profession. And for today: if you have a job to do and you find that the most principled stand you can take is to do that job even if (perhaps especially if) it means carrying out the morally reprehensible habits of state power, fine.

I always tell my little brother (who is a police officer):

Do your job to the letter, even if it isn't always what you want to do. But don't use your voice for anything you don't actually believe in. Keep that sacred.

This is essentially the angle of groups like the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, which advocates on behalf of police officers and other LEOs to advance thoughtful, mature, common-sense policy change.

The USDA Forest Service Police definitely didn't believe in what they were doing. They were deeply ashamed; the pain in their hearts was as palpable as the confusion in their heads: scroll back to the top of this page and look at the photo of the officer - he was visibly disturbed by the things coming out of his own mouth. I feel sorrow over the loss of their personal agency and capacity for clear-headed thinking, but where they crossed the line was lying to us and to themselves, claiming that everything taking place in front of their eyes was just hunky-dory and exactly as our founding documents prescribe.

By contrast, not one but two Oregon State Troopers stopped by the bus to apologize and make clear that this conduct was the fault of the USDA and not the Oregon Troopers. It was a surreal experience.

There is a deep hole - a void - in the position that the 4th amendment once occupied in the American political consciousness. Growing and festering in that void is a case of mass mental illness, driving our country's police officers - who almost surely got into the business out of a desire to genuinely help people and stand for the good and the just in society - so crazy that they are unable to achieve even the modicum of dignity that is required for adult civic dialogue.

It's a sad state of affairs, and even after drug prohibition ends, we'll have a lot of remediation and healing to perform on these folks. It really sucks.

My first thought after they left wasn't, "phew! it's over!" or "well that sucked." It was, "well, at least I don't have that job."

The contrast that came in the following hours when we finally entered The Rainbow Gathering was profound. The Gathering is a bastion of critical thought, inter-generational cooperation and awareness, and sophisticated social norms. While my confidence in humanity is difficult to shake in the first place, the gathering did a lot to solidify it.

Nevertheless, I am left with the vulnerability I described at the beginning of this essay. But even if I have to live with this dire insecurity, I am uninjured, unafraid, and undeterred. Freedom, peace, and justice in the information age constitute an ongoing imperative, the realization of which is a mighty cause for struggle, in the face of which I can accept no compromise, or at least none that is based only on such flimsy pretexts as were displayed here.

Peace and Persistence.