Steve Chapman

But let's suppose a cop can get nosy only if he has already intercepted someone for, say, a traffic violation. That's cold comfort for the innocent. Any officer who wants to make a stop can easily come up with some trivial transgression -- improper lane change, going 1 mph over the speed limit, failing to come to a complete stop at a stop sign.

When I went to traffic school years ago, the officer teaching it strongly advised us never to argue when being issued a ticket. On the average car, he said, he could find half a dozen reasons to write up additional citations if provoked. Any of those would serve equally well to justify a stop.

Of course, even if they have reason to pull someone over, police are not supposed to demand documents unless they have "reasonable suspicion" that someone is here illegally. But -- aside from instances of guys hiding in trunks -- what does that mean if it doesn't mean checking anyone who looks or sounds Latino? Illegal immigrants don't normally wear shirts that say "Fence Jumpers Local 302."

Given that even the governor doesn't know what an illegal immigrant looks like, police may often have trouble articulating a reason for interrogating someone. In that case, the law may be largely irrelevant. If the most obvious grounds for reasonable suspicion are race-based -- and thus illegal -- cops may elect to do nothing more often than not.

That may be what some officials would prefer. The Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police opposes the policy. Winslow city administrator Jim Ferguson told The Los Angeles Times, "If we enforce this new law, we are not going to be able to afford to take care of some other pressing law enforcement issues."

So the measure could mean that overaggressive cops will put legal Hispanic residents in chronic fear of arrest. Alternatively, police may not do their jobs much differently from before.

Maybe the new law is a menace. Or maybe it's more of a hoax.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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