As Artificial Intelligence becomes common, here is a probable consequence – Self-driving cars will help the illegal drug trade by eliminating one of law enforcement’s most useful tools – the Motor Vehicle Stop.
A Minor Traffic Infraction is Enough to Stop A Car
Under both Massachusetts and Federal Law, police may stop any motor vehicle that commits a traffic violation. (Commonwealth v. Santana and United States v. Lawrence). The traffic violation need not be major. A Marked Lanes Violation of the slightest degree, witnessed by a police officer, is sufficient to pull over an automobile.
Police Officer’s Intent is Irrelevant
The police may pull over any automobile that it believes is transporting drugs (or any product), so long as that car commits a violation.∗ Some police officers use traffic infractions as a pretext to stop a car that it believes is engaged in illegal behavior. For example, Officer Smith believes that Dennis Dealer has cocaine in his car. Officer Smith follows Dennis, waiting for Dennis to commit a traffic violation. Hoping to see evidence of drugs, Officer Smith pulls Dennis over as soon as Dennis’ tires cross the fog line. Officer Smith’s subjective intent is irrelevant.
∗This is not to say that, following the stop, the police may immediately search the car. To legally search the car, the police need additional evidence.
Human Error and Impatience Causes Traffic Violations
Currently, human drivers control the rate of speed by pressing the gas and brake pedals. We turn the steering wheel to direct the path of travel. We regulate many of the variables that determine whether the car operates within the bounds of the traffic statutes. As a result, speeding, line-crossing, and rolling stops are commonplace. Most drivers routinely violate road rules. We do so for many reasons – carelessness, hastiness, and impatience. The breaking of these rules have lead to millions of police-initiated traffic stops. Many of those traffic stops lead to the seizure of drugs.
Dealers Use Cars to Transport Drugs
Motor vehicles are the primary means in which illegal drugs are transported. The product is imported from Mexico, South America, China, Europe, etc. The cargo is loaded onto trucks. The trucks bring the goods to local dealers/gangs. The dealers pick up the drugs in their vehicles, and distribute it to lower-level peddlers. And on down the line. An automobile is used in almost every stage of the process. (Exception- bicycle couriers in densely-populated cities).
Self-Driving Cars Will Follow all Road Rules, Making No Mistakes
When the technology becomes available for wide-consumer use, self-driving cars will be commonplace. Humans will be able to program their vehicles to obey all traffic laws. (I assume they will also be able to override this function, allowing for the occasional rolling stop or hasty acceleration). When this happens, the number of traffic violations will plummet.
Drug Dealers Will Transport Contraband in Vehicles that Operate Without Error
Losing product, getting arrested, and serving prison sentences – these are consequences of drug seizures that occur following motor vehicle stops. The traffic stops will decrease significantly when self-driving cars become the norm. Drug dealers will benefit from transporting illegal substances in machines that are less likely to be stopped.
Self-driving technology will likely evolve to the point where cars will operate with no passengers, thus making it challenging to assign ownership or responsibility of the car’s illegal contents.
The benefit of using driverless cars to transport illegal drugs are clear – without pretextual traffic-infraction stops, law enforcement cannot make legal traffic stops unless they have additional evidence of criminal behavior. Obtaining such evidence requires thorough investigation; investigation requires resources. The motor-vehicle-infraction-stop has, for decades, been an important weapon in the battle against drug trafficking. Driverless cars may render that weapon obsolete.