From Iceland — The Undercover Police Chronicles

The Undercover Police Chronicles

Published July 4, 2014

Regarding ‘stop and frisk’ at The Secret Solstice Festival

The Undercover Police Chronicles
Photo by
Matthew Eisman

Regarding ‘stop and frisk’ at The Secret Solstice Festival

While the inaugural Secret Solstice festival was by most counts a great success, it was not an entirely pleasant experience for some festivalgoers, who were subject to frequent search and seizure measures by plainclothes police officers. In the aftermath of the festival, under public scrutiny, police officials maintained that all searches were performed upon a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing and with the consent of those involved. Yet, members of Snarrótin, an Icelandic civil rights organisation, claim the police searched festival guests seemingly at random and—if witnesses are to be believed—sometimes against their will. The whole operation has sparked a lively debate in Iceland on whether the 70 drug busts the police made during the festival justify the potential violation of the privacy rights of those festival goers who did no wrong.

Júlía Birgisdóttir of Snarrótin told me it didn’t take long for the group to become aware of the team of undercover cops since they didn’t seem to be having any fun, and because they all had transceivers in their back pockets. She said she witnessed officers frisking thirty or so people, who according to her, did not stand out in any way as being suspicious and none of them turned out to have any drugs in their possession. The officers looked through these people’s pockets and into their mouths in plain sight. Upon seeing this, Júlía decided to start filming the police, which did not go over well with them. “They got very upset and told me I wasn’t allowed to film them,” she says. “When I insisted that I was within my rights to film them, they tried to take my phone away from me and accused me of taking drugs.”

Later on, Snarrótin, the police and a few others got into an argument on Facebook about these incidents. It started with the cops posting an Instagram picture of uniformed officers enjoying a concert, stating that everybody had a good time during Summer Solstice Festival. Júlía replied that the people whose constitutional right to privacy had been violated might disagree with that statement. The police then protested that they only use legal and tested methods at festivals and that accusing the police of violating the constitution was a serious matter, which if true, should be reported to the police.

Police Authority To Perform Frisks

Legally speaking, the police are only allowed to frisk people without a court order if there is reasonable suspicion that the person involved committed a crime punishable by at least two years imprisonment. Without the express consent of the suspect, the police must also deem the search necessary to prevent the destruction of evidence.

Selling drugs is punishable by up to 12 years imprisonment and possession by up to six. This means that if the police reasonably suspected a guest of one or the other they could decide to frisk him or her to make sure that the suspect didn’t take the drugs while they weren’t looking. The question remains whether the police had reasonable suspicion that all the festival patrons they searched were committing such offenses.

According to police chief Friðrik Smári Björgvinsson, the officers frisked a total of a 100 people at the festival. Approximately 70 were busted for possession (four with possible intent to sell) while 30 turned out not to have any drugs. By doing simple math, we can surmise that the police had an amazing seventy percent success rate in their endeavours. More amazingly, the police obtained the consent of every single person who was frisked.

Yes Mister Policeman, Find My Drugs Please

Common sense suggests that those who have drugs on their person might not be too inclined to allow the police to go through their pockets to find them. It is therefore rather perplexing that out of a hundred people searched, seventy had drugs in their possession and were also all happy to be frisked.

Grétar Guðbjörnsson, one of the festival patrons claims there was at least one guest who refused the police’s request for a pat down. He told me he was standing in line for the toilets with a friend when seven plainclothes officers approached him and wanted to frisk him. Grétar says he gave them permission because his experience had shown that saying no didn’t work. The police frisked him and came up empty handed.

Grétar’s belief that resistance was futile was confirmed shortly thereafter when another guy in line refused to be frisked by police and Grétar says he witnessed the officers shoving the man unceremoniously against a fence and searching him regardless. Grétar did not believe that he, or the unlucky patron, was acting in any way suspicious during that bathroom quest.

The Equality Of All Before The Law

It should be noted at this juncture that the police are required to uphold the equality of everyone before the law. This means they cannot discriminate against persons on the basis of factors such as gender, race, religion, political views, social group or other comparable reasons. Moreover, the police can only employ methods proportionate to the aim being achieved.

In this spirit, many people have pointed out that invasive drug enforcement disproportionately singles out young people at festivals, seeing as they appear to be the only group repeatedly targeted by frisking teams of undercover cops.

Bogi Reynisson, one of the commentators on the aforementioned Facebook thread, pointed out that police should in all fairness send plainclothes officers to the yearly Landsbankinn party where he claims drug use (“cough, cocaine, cough”) is ubiquitous. Others have suggested that police should dress up real nice and frisk the patrons of the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra at the Harpa Concert Hall. Perhaps such missions would also result in more than a few drug busts?

Are Festival Patrons Suspicious By Default?

When asked how the police determined which events should be attended by plainclothes police officers and if they could provide examples of such enforcement at events intended for an older clientele, superintendent Friðrik said that they police direct their enforcement where it is thought to be necessary.

“A festival such as this [Secret Solstice] is an example of an event sought out by drug dealers, since their main target group is young people,” he said. “The police had also been notified that this would be the case.”

When asked again for examples of undercover operations in other types of social gatherings Friðrik refused to comment further on the matter.

Are We Equal?

While some drug use is certainly to be expected at events like Secret Solstice, attendance alone should not suffice as reasonable suspicion of a crime. That would be plain discrimination.

As the police refuse to comment any further on this issue we don’t exactly know whether the drug enforcement unit has dressed up in tuxedoes and ball gowns to go through the pockets of Iceland’s older and potentially more affluent drug users. While that scenario seems highly unlikely, it is amusing to imagine. Wouldn’t it have been interesting to see a headline like this? “Over 30 people charged with drug possession while attending Jordan Belfort’s sales seminar in Háskólabíó”.

In all seriousness though, the police are within their rights to use some of their strained resources to ensure drug dealers do not sell their product to young people. However, subjecting said young people to invasive searches when all they are doing is trying to have a good time is objectionable. Marking kids as criminals on the record to keep them away from drugs certainly doesn’t appear proportionate to the aim being pursued.

A similar Icelandic version of this article originally appeared on Kvennablaðið on June 25.

Þórhildur Sunna Ævarsdóttir LLM has a degree in International Law of Human Rights and Criminal Justice

See Also:

A Successful Solstice


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