A Car Might Not Mean Freedom After All: An Interview with Sarah Seo

Policing the Open Road cover image

By Savannah Jelks

Policing the Open Road: How Cars Transformed American Freedom (Harvard University Press, 2019) by Sarah Seo is the winner of this year’s Ralph Waldo Emerson Award. Phi Beta Kappa’s Emerson Award is offered for scholarly studies that contribute significantly to interpretations of the intellectual and cultural condition of humanity. Established in 1960, this award encompasses work in the fields of history, philosophy, and religion, including appropriate work in related fields such as anthropology and the social sciences. Past winning authors have written on topics such as mass incarceration, slavery in the New World, and the history of New York City from the late 19th to the early 20th century. 

Sarah Seo is a professor at Columbia Law School, where she teaches legal history, criminal law, and criminal procedure. Prior to joining Columbia’s faculty, she taught at University of Iowa College of Law for four years. In addition to her law degree from Columbia, Seo also holds a Ph.D. in history from Princeton University, where she was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa as an undergraduate. After earning her J.D., Seo clerked on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. 

Policing the Open Road examines how the rise of the car inadvertently led to more intrusive policing, wreaking disastrous consequences for racial equality in our criminal justice system. “When Americans think of freedom, they often picture the open road,” the publisher explains. “Yet nowhere are we more likely to encounter the long arm of the law than in our cars.” Seo shows how the extensive use of automobiles has conditioned us to accept pervasive police power. This cultural shift has not only changed the nature and meaning of freedom in America, it also has profound legal and political consequences.

Seo invites readers to examine how the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, has failed to protect individuals from government intrusion while driving. Discretionary policing rose to prominence in a society that was heavily dependent on cars, and procedures that were intended to safeguard drivers on the road now undermine America’s commitment to equal protection before the law. 


What provided the impetus for writing Policing the Open Road? Was it a topic you’d always been interested in, or was there a more recent moment that sparked your interest? 

SEO: I became a historian of cars by accident. While clerking for a federal district court judge in New York City, I learned that the criminal docket was mostly drug cases and that most defendants were people of color. I wanted to know more about how the war on drugs shaped constitutional law and legal culture in American society, so I decided to study legal history. For my dissertation, I focused on the Fourth Amendment because it’s the constitutional provision that most directly governs the police. I discovered that Fourth Amendment cases were relatively rare in the 19th century and the number of cases exploded suddenly in the early 1920s, which coincided with the mass adoption of the automobile and National Prohibition. Not surprisingly, bootleggers preferred to transport their illicit goods in the new “machines,” as they were sometimes called then. That’s when cars became the focus of my research on the legal history of the war on drugs.

When you were writing this book did you imagine that people across the nation would soon be calling for a shift in resources similar to the one that you advocate for?

SEO: When I first floated the idea of separating traffic enforcement and criminal investigations in 2015 while writing what would become chapter five, some law professors were skeptical about its execution. Would it mean that a traffic enforcer who saw drugs or evidence of a crime in a car couldn’t investigate further? Law professors are very good at raising hypothetical questions that highlight potential problems. So I considered the idea a legal historian’s fantasy rather than a serious policy proposal. Also, I didn’t expect transportation experts to pick up my book. But when they read this history, they got the same idea that I had: if the delegation of traffic enforcement and crime control to one agency granted its officers immense discretionary power, then one way to undo that grant of power would be to separate the two functions by removing traffic enforcement from police duties. The summer of 2020 protests after George Floyd’s death gave urgency to the need for equitable law enforcement, and this was one idea that transportation policymakers thought worth trying.

On your website, you state that since the publication of Policing the Open Road, you’ve been “advocating for the removal of civil traffic law enforcement from police duties” with the Justice Collaborative Institute. Can you share a little more about the long-term goals of this project? What has the response been so far?

SEO: The goal is to prioritize road safety, rather than criminal investigations, in traffic enforcement, which will ultimately reduce pretextual and discriminatory traffic stops. Eliminating investigative stops, which frequently create unnecessary risks, will also promote officer safety. Berkeley and Cambridge are looking into this proposal. I hope more cities will, too.

What do you most hope readers will take away and learn from Policing the Open Road?

SEO: The history told in Policing the Open Road illustrates the challenges of governing a modern society. Positive laws that are enacted for our safety and wellbeing but aren’t rooted in morality—traffic laws are a prime example; social-distancing regulations are another—require law enforcement, which opens the door to discretionary power. And discretion opens the door to discrimination. The necessity of positive laws on the one hand and the dangers of discretionary power on the other is a quandary that our society has struggled with and continues to struggle with. And to address racial inequality, we must never stop struggling with it.

What are your thoughts on being recognized by The Phi Beta Kappa Society and receiving its Ralph Waldo Emerson Award?

SEO: I recently learned the Hebrew word “dayenu,” which captures how I feel. It would have been enough to have readers engage with my book, but to also receive the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award—dayenu!

Savannah Jelks earned her bachelor’s degree in history from Union College, where she was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in May 2020. Union College is home to the Alpha of New York chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.