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NYPD Versus The First Amendment

NYPD Versus The First Amendment

NYPD to Waze: Stop snitching on our checkpoints!

“Police reported ahead” is a common phrase heard on a drive using the crowd-sourced navigation app Waze. Added to the app in real time by nearby users, it’s one of numerous alerts sent to drivers about upcoming obstacles on a route. Many users view it as a harmless way to avoid getting speeding tickets, but others use the app to point out police checkpoints, including those setup for DUI prevention. The New York Police Department (NYPD) wants it to stop.

Written about by the The New York Times and reported by Streetsblog, the NYPD sent a cease-and-desist letter to Waze’s owner, Google. It insisted the app’s capabilities should not be allowed and could even be considered illegal.

“Individuals who post the locations of DWI checkpoints may be engaging in criminal conduct since such actions could be intentional attempts to prevent and/or impair the administration of the DWI laws and other relevant criminal and traffic laws,” NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Legal Matters and lawyer Ann P. Prunty said in the letter.

I don’t have sympathy for people who drive drunk, but I have less sympathy for those who think that they can attack the Bill of Rights. NYPD is already well known for it’s antipathy to the Second and Fourth Amendments, and now they seem to want to add the First to their list of Civil Rights they want curtailed.

In a different age, and maybe even now, drivers would flash their headlights at oncoming traffic to warn of police ahead on the road. Whether it was a speed trap or DWI check point, it didn’t matter. Smart drivers would check their speed and make sure that they weren’t doing anything that would attract undue attention from the police.

We can debate whether that’s obstruction or enhanced safety, but one thing is for sure. It’s protected speech under the First Amendment. There have been court cases in Missouri, Ohio, and Florida where judges have said exactly that. They’ve dismissed cases and enjoined police from pulling over and ticketing drivers for flashing their headlights.

The feature in Waze that NYPD doesn’t like is the same thing, only the 21st Century version.

I use Waze a lot, for several reasons. First, is that it warns of heavy traffic ahead of me and offers alternate routes. Which is another thing some police departments don’t like. That is becauseĀ  the alternate routes can increase traffic on otherwise quiet streets. Which in turn engenders complaints by the residents and the police have to “do something.” “Something” is likely to be enhanced traffic enforcement, wherein more drivers are stopped and if not local residents, are likely to get traffic tickets.

Secondly, Waze warns me when there is a traffic problem ahead. Some of the work I do is time sensitive as it involves transporting human organs for transplant. I don’t want to sit in traffic unnecessarily while a patient and surgical team are waiting for an organ. Unlike what you see on TV and movies, most organ transplants don’t involve helicopters and Igloo coolers. They involve drives, some short, some longer.

It helps to know that there is a major accident ahead on the Interstate and an alternate route is better.

I’ve used Waze to navigate the maze that is New York City (Manhattan) traffic for just such a transport. I’d likely still be there if I didn’t have it.

Third, yes it does often warn of police activity ahead. Which could be a speed trap, traffic stop, or just an officer sitting by the side of the road.

If I were still active in EMS and had to operate in an area with which I was unfamiliar, I’d use Waze in preference to a stand alone GPS. The real time traffic data is worth the amount (small) of data usage incurred.

Traffic tickets aren’t really about public safety, they are about revenue generation. With few exceptions, people stoppedĀ  by the police for traffic violations aren’t creating a risk to the public.

But I digress.

So, NYPD has demanded that Waze stop allowing it’s users to post the locations of DWI check points. The problem being that Waze doesn’t have specific categories for “Police Reported Ahead.” You press the police icon and your choices are “Hidden”, “Visible”, or “Other Side.” “DWI checkpoint” is not on that list. In effect, what NYPD wants Waze to do is remove the entire “Police” function.

My guess is that there are far more traffic stops, speed traps, and other enhanced enforcement activities that the NYPD engages in that they don’t want people warned about. Activities that generate a lot of revenue for the City of New York.

Here is the official reply from the Waze parent company, Google.

Google released a statement saying, “We believe that informing drivers about upcoming speed traps allows them to be more careful and make safe decisions when they are on the road.”

Sufficiently vague and generic that no one can really complain. After all, who isn’t in favor of “safe decision?”

Or the First Amendment, for that matter. I think NYPD is on the losing end of that argument in this case.

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After a long career as a field EMS provider, I'm now doing all that back office stuff I used to laugh at. Life is full of ironies, isn't it? I still live in the Northeast corner of the United States, although I hope to change that to another part of the country more in tune with my values and beliefs. I still write about EMS, but I'm adding more and more non EMS subject matter. Thanks for visiting.