For most people, the sight of flashing police lights in the rearview mirror tends to provoke anxiety.

So when police in Tempe, Ariz., announced this week that officers would be handing out coupons for a free drink at Circle K gas stations as a reward for following traffic laws, labeling it a “Positive Ticketing Campaign,” the response was instantaneous backlash. Critics pointed out that stopping drivers who aren’t breaking any laws is typically unconstitutional, and that being pulled over is extremely stressful, or, at the very least, annoying and not worth the dollar or two saved on a fountain soda.

On Monday, amid widespread outrage, the department clarified that it did not, in fact, intend to violate anyone’s Fourth Amendment rights. Rather than pulling over drivers, officials said, they planned to engage in “consensual, two-way conversations” with pedestrians, bicyclists and scooter riders in the Phoenix suburb, which is home to Arizona State University. If an officer spotted someone wearing a helmet or crossing the street safely, they could hand them a coupon as a gesture of thanks.

But the initial reaction — which police said was the result of its news release being misinterpreted by a local TV station — demonstrated the growing pushback against officers who randomly pull over drivers, then surprise them with Thanksgiving turkeys, Christmas gifts or $100 bills. Typically framed by media outlets as heartwarming tales about police doing good in the community, the made-to-go-viral videos usually feature a petrified-looking driver trying to figure out what they did wrong, then bursting out in laughter when an officer returns with an ice cream cone or a gift card. Critics charge that such stories amount to “copaganda,” and that even if the individual officers have good intentions, they’re violating the Constitution.

In Tempe, which is home to just shy of 200,000 people, tensions have been running high since January, when a 14-year-old boy who was carrying a replica Airsoft handgun ran away from police and was shot dead within seconds. Earlier this month, six Tempe police officers said that they were asked to leave a local Starbucks after another customer complained to a barista, saying the officers’ presence made them feel unsafe. (The chain later publicly apologized.)

Local TV news stations were quick to highlight Tempe’s “Positive Ticketing Campaign” as a feel-good story. “Officers will be pulling people over who are following traffic laws . . . but instead of a ticket you’ll get a coupon for a free drink at Circle K,” said a since-deleted tweet from 12 News, a local NBC affiliate. In the video that accompanied the tweet, a reporter declared that “if you see a Tempe police officer pulling you over, it may not be such a bad thing.”

But legal experts had some other thoughts on the matter. “I applaud the sentiment, but this is absolutely unlawful,” tweeted Seth Stoughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina. “A traffic stop is a seizure, and must be supported by probable cause of a traffic infraction or reasonable suspicion of a crime. A traffic stop that lacks one of those legal justifications violates the Fourth Amendment.”

Scott Hechinger, a senior staff attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services, wondered, “What happens if they claim they notice the ‘odor of marijuana?’ Or see something ‘in plain view?' Will they still give them this stupid coupon before illegally searching & arresting them?”

The ACLU, too, weighed in: “Whoever approved this needs a remedial course in constitutional law.”

Others pointed out that being stopped by police can be especially frightening if you’re a person of color, and that getting a free soda, coffee or frozen drink wasn’t worth the stress and inconvenience of being pulled over.

Later on Monday, the police department issued clarifications, saying that its news release was misinterpreted, and the “ticketing campaign” wouldn’t actually involve stopping drivers. “Stop the outrage- a news outlet got it wrong!” tweeted Tempe Police Chief Sylvia Moir. “Tempe Police are NOT conducting traffic stops to give coupons to people. We never intended to stop and detain people for this purpose- come on man!”

In a subsequent interview with 12 News, Tempe Police Detective Greg Bacon clarified how the giveaway was supposed to work. A police officer assigned to a public school might see a student riding in the bike lane while wearing their helmet, then hand them a drink coupon at lunch, he said. Similarly, he suggested, an officer who just happened to be pulling up at Circle K for a drink while someone else got ready to leave on their bike could initiate a conversation about safety — though the bicyclist would be free to leave at any time.

Tempe PD talks about their new 'Positive Ticketing Campaign'

There has been confusion about Tempe PD's "Positive Ticketing Campaign" and we're at Temp Police Department as they clarify the initiative. MORE: https://12ne.ws/2GDCYLE

Posted by 12 News on Monday, July 29, 2019

“The officer may walk up to the citizen and say, ‘Hey, do you have a moment to speak with me?’" Bacon said. “That citizen can say, ‘No, I have things to do and I have places to be,’ and the citizen rides off, and all is well.”

While less likely to run afoul of the Constitution, that approach also met with mixed reviews.

“Not much better,” one critic replied on Twitter. “Unless I’m breaking the law, there is no reason for an officer to approach me for a lecture. It’s not ‘voluntary’ either. Due to the power dynamics, I would be afraid to say no. Police scare people. We don’t all have the same experiences with them. This is not OK.”

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