After a police officer pulls over a teenage girl without any legal justification and frightens her to the verge of tears, the local press portrays the incident as charming rather than alarming. You know what that means: Prom season is upon us.
The cop-assisted promposal, in which police help a teenager carry out a prank that ends with an invitation to the big dance, has become a familiar springtime ritual, documented in online videos and feel-good newspaper stories. But beneath the warm and fuzzy images of adolescent couples lurks a disturbing willingness to tolerate abuses of power by police officers as long as their motives are pure.
When a cop makes a traffic stop, he is using his special powers as an armed agent of the state to forcibly detain someone. Under the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits “unreasonable searches and seizures,” he needs a good reason to use those powers — typically, “reasonable suspicion” of a crime or traffic violation.
There is no promposal exception to the Fourth Amendment. Yet police officers across the country are happy to make traffic stops in the name of young love.
Last month, for instance, Isaac Nusbaum, a student at White Knoll High School in Lexington, South Carolina, enlisted the help of South Congaree Officer Eddie Stone to arrange a “fake traffic stop” for his girlfriend, Candice Derrick. Nusbaum was hiding in Stone’s police truck with flowers and a sign that said, “Will you be my partner N crime and go to prom with me?”
The State, a newspaper based in Columbia, South Carolina’s capital, covered the incident as a heartwarming human interest story, although it conceded that getting pulled over by the cops “can be a startling experience” and noted that the prank “might have been too realistic” for the object of Nusbaum’s affections. “I may have went just a little too far with it when I almost made her cry,” Stone admitted on the South Congaree Police Department’s Facebook page.
But the important thing, Stone wrote, is that “she said YES” to Nusbaum’s “very sweet” invitation. “Thank you,” he wrote to the couple, “for letting the Town of South Congaree and myself be part of this special moment for you two.”
In another “special” moment last January, police in Oxford, Mississippi, pulled over a teenager who was on a date with his girlfriend and pretended to arrest him on an outstanding warrant. The boy revealed the trick by holding up a sign that said, “I’m locked up so I can lock you down for prom.”
“I’m about to start crying,” the girl says in the promposal video after seeing the sign. “This is not funny. You scared me.”
A teenage Kansas couple was so enamored of the false-arrest theme that the pair carried it over to the prom itself. After a Greenwood County sheriff’s deputy pulled Alexis Berndt over so her boyfriend, Daniel Huber, could surprise her with a promposal sign (“Can I cop you into going to prom”), she turned the tables by arranging for him to be handcuffed while the couple rode to the prom in a police car.
My friend Lauren Krisai, a policy analyst at the Justice Action Network, picked that last example as “this year’s most outrageous promposal.” Despite the positive press coverage such stunts receive, she says, they “are neither cute nor legal.”
Though the cuteness of these prom pranks is in the eye of the beholder, their legality is not. Stopping drivers without a legal justification is unconstitutional, and overlooking that point for the sake of something as frivolous as a prom invitation invites cops to cut corners when the stakes are more serious.
Police are supposed to abide by the Constitution even when doing so makes it harder to convict someone they’re convinced is guilty. They should not be taking their cues from people who think it’s not just OK but positively delightful to violate the Fourth Amendment so that Dan can ask Lexi to the prom.