Comment of the Day: “More Weird Tales From The Great Stupid: Oh Yeah, This Will Work Out Well…”

Unlike so many of us here so often, Jim Hodgson is writing about a topic in which he has directly relevant experience as he explains some of the issues involved in the Los Angeles (nutso-cuckoo) proposal to have non-law enforcement personnel regulate traffic violations. His Comment of the Day is lengthy but ethically delicious and nutritious, so I am going to be uncharacteristically brief in my introduction. Here is Jim’s Comment of the Day on the post, “More Weird Tales From The Great Stupid: Oh Yeah, This Will Work Out Well…”:

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There’s a lot to be unpacked on this topic. I have never found the term “pretextual stops” accurate for typical traffic stops, even when there is an enforcement emphasis on interdiction of illegal drugs or firearms. Officers are trained to be alert for signs of criminal activity and to investigate accordingly. When suspicion rises to the level of “reasonable suspicion,” officers are authorized (and expected) to detain people to determine whether or not there is criminal activity.

If reasonable suspicion becomes confirmed to the point of “probable cause” to believe that a felony crime is being or has been committed, then arrest is authorized. In my state and every state with whose laws I am knowledgeable, the traffic code is separate from the criminal code (except for overlap in areas like vehicular assault, vehicular homicide and perhaps habitual drunk driving) and are instead considered a regulatory function.

A legal traffic stop will begin when an officer witnesses a traffic violation and either initiates the stop or communicates with another officer who does so. If there is no actual traffic violation then there is no valid basis for a stop, making it a Fourth Amendment violation. If the traffic stop is factually valid, and the officer subsequently sees evidence of crime in plain view, or develops reasonable suspicion based on what he or she perceives with the five senses, the traffic stop can move into the territory of a “Terry stop,” justifying further inquiry, leading to a decision of whether or not there is probable cause for arrest.

Officers are trained to always cite or charge the violator with the original violation that precipitated the traffic stop, whether or not the extended detention results in an arrest. (In the litigious world we live in, officers are growing less and less prone to issue mere verbal warnings for traffic violations, due to frequent subsequent claims that, “If I had actually broken the law, the officer would have written me a ticket!”) This traffic stop process applies whether the violator is merely a bad or careless driver, a drug trafficker, gun runner, a burglar carrying a trunk load of stolen loot or a kindly-looking guy with a dead body in the back floorboard.

It has always been my observation that criminals should assiduously obey the traffic laws if they wish to avoid detention and arrest while driving, but the majority are apparently unable to curb their scofflaw attitude even in the cause of career preservation. The vast majority of those with suspended driver’s licenses continue to drive – badly. People who know that they have outstanding criminal warrants continue to drive – poorly.

The switch to traffic enforcement by by non-police personnel will have numerous consequences. Many more crimes and criminals will go on undetected. Many of these non-police traffic regulators will be killed. (Does anyone with an IQ above room temperature think a violent criminal who would take on an armed police officer would hesitate to kill an unarmed functionary who threatens his or her freedom?) I believe these people would eventually become too timid to be effective, and maybe that’s a feature rather than a bug.

In the big picture, a major (I believe intended) effect will be adding to the increasing lawlessness of society and the growing fear among the citizenry, which will make them either more likely to embrace vigilantism, which would justify a “crackdown” of their desperate (primarily white supremacist, racist, of course) self-protection efforts, or reduce the citizenry to helplessness in order to impose eventual draconian efforts to restore “safety.” We all know Franklin’s admonitions about the tradeoff between liberty and safety.

During the last decade-and-a-half of my career, I was assigned an unmarked vehicle which looked like -surprise!- an unmarked police car. Nevertheless it was sufficiently inconspicuous that people would routinely commit traffic infractions in my presence that I doubt they would have committed in close proximity to a marked police unit. My agency (and common sense) discouraged routine traffic enforcement in unmarked vehicles, so most of those violators I witnessed didn’t have the error of their ways pointed out to them, at least not at the time, by me. I used to joke that on many days, if I left my residence headed to the office and stopped every violator I saw, I would spend the whole day making traffic stops. This was only a slight exaggeration, and I know many others whose experience mirrors mine.

I never worked for an agency that had a “ticket quota.” Violators would often ask about a quota and I would respond with, “No, they let us write as many as we want.” There is never any shortage of traffic violators, especially since seat belt laws and cell phone usage laws have taken effect. These days, in my retirement, I don’t drive nearly so much, and during my four or five weekly trips to town and back in my old truck, I see many people treating the traffic laws, especially the cell phone prohibitions, speed limits and no passing zones, as mere suggestions. This is on curvy two-lane county roads with no shoulder, blind hills and hidden driveways, and lots of farm equipment on the roads except in the winter, not the interstate or even a state highway. I drive at the speed limit on my road (45) and seldom make the ten-mile trip to town without being passed at least once (frequently in a no passing zone) by people driving 65 or more (I’m not exaggerating, being well-trained in speed estimation), often while using their phones.

It is Russian roulette with a vehicle and, occasionally, the hammer lands on the live round. And I know that our sheriffs office and the Highway Patrol make a lot of traffic stops and write many tickets. I can’t imagine what the roads would be like if traffic enforcement took a significant dive.

“Pretextual stops” where a particular vehicle or driver is targeted for enforcement action and closely observed for a violation that would authorize a stop, are in the main practiced by a few specialized interdiction and apprehension units, not the typical officer on patrol or regular traffic enforcement duty. There still must be an actual traffic violation, and that violation can’t be “blamed” on the police.

6 thoughts on “Comment of the Day: “More Weird Tales From The Great Stupid: Oh Yeah, This Will Work Out Well…”

  1. I am sure this is the norm but it takes only a few to create a negative impression. I had the misfortune of leaving a club at a late hour only to be stopped and ordered out of the car for a field sobriety test. The reason stated for pulling me over was that my headlights were not on. When I stopped for him I turned off the engine and put both hands on the wheel so they were plainly visible.
    I did not argue with him about the fact that my lights come on automatically my only comment when he stated there was a strong smell of alcohol about me that if he did it was because it was spilled on me by someone I knew that I had not had anything alcoholic as I don’t drink. Nonetheless, I was forced to stand in the rain facing 4 patrol cars with their strobes of blue red and white flashing in my face while trying to navigate the heel to toe downhill. I later learned that the test must be administered on flat level ground by a lawyer friend. This is quite disorienting and I knew I was failing the balance tests. I demanded to have him give me a breathalyzer test which ultimately showed zero. He still gave me a ticket for not displaying headlights. I took my car to the dealer who provided me evidence that my automatic headlights were working as designed and could not be off in darkness with the engine running and parking brake off. I sent a letter of complaint to the Sheriff as well as some other officials. I went to court and before I could make my statement of defense the judge asked the officer if he actually saw my headlights off and he answered that he did not he assumed they were off. Case dismissed.
    The officer came up to me afterward and stated he was not targeting me because of my car (Camaro). I never insinuated it was because of the vehicle. Nonetheless, I came away with a negative impression of Frederick County deputies.

    The point of this is that god officers have an ethical duty to ferret out or retrain officers who want to shortcut processes or gin up arrests. If they don’t they are partially culpable for the public’s perceptions of overbearing police forces.

    • My stepson was pulled over coming out of a bar. In this particular bar, to turn right, there is a small sign that tells you to turn not into the closest (right) lane, but directly into the left lane. The right lane is NOT a right-turn only. There appears to be no reason for this rule other than allowing the police to pull over drivers for a traffic violation. He blew a 0.085 on the handheld breathalyzer and was arrested for DUI. Then they could search his car ‘legally’. At the station, he blew a 0.04 on the better breathalyzer, the officer admitting the handheld units are calibrated to read high ‘just in case’. He was charged with DUI anyway because of the definite alcohol combined with his moving violation. It turns out, that police department has been pulling people over there for decades. The only problem is that that road isn’t in their jurisdiction. They have been telling judges it is for years when challenged by defense attorneys and no judge bothered to check. An anonymous tip to the local TV station about that time led to a big investigation leading to the police chief and the mayor lying to a judge in writing about theses circumstances.

      In Texas, you can be arrested for not wearing your seatbelt (at the officer’s discretion). If you don’t have a camera pointed at yourself while driving, you have no way of proving you were wearing a seatbelt if the officer said you weren’t . If you refuse a search of your car, you can be arrested, at which point they can ‘legally’ search your car. A friend of mine was arrested after dark for ‘not wearing her seatbelt’. When she protested, the officer saw the softball equipment bag in the back seat (they had just come back from a game). He searched the car and arrested her and the passenger for possessing ‘concealed weapons’ (softball bats). All those charges had to be dropped, the arrests expunged, etc because this case was a pretty clear racial discrimination case.

      I was pulled over for doing 45 mph in a 55 mph zone and ticketed for going 10 over the limit. The officer just wanted to look around my car looking for a better charge. My protestatios were for naught. Apparently, the road is listed on the ‘official’ maps as 35 mph, but the signs say 55 mph. It makes for a great speed trap and pretextual stops. It is the only time I have been pulled over.

      There are a lot of pretextual stops going on out there.

    • You had me at four police cars for a simple suspected DUI stop. They obviously have PLENTY of manpower. I wholeheartedly agree with everything you said in your last paragraph.

  2. Thank you for that explanation, Jim, from, as Jack said, someone who knows whereof he speaks. It is posts such as this that keep me coming back for more. A well-deserved COTD.

  3. Yep, great thoughts, Jim…thank you.

    And if you want to see much of Jim’s experience played out for you in real time, watch “On Patrol: Live” on the Reelz channel. Three hours on Friday and Saturday that will give you fresh perspective on just how difficult Jim’s work could be. I appreciate him – and all law enforcement – more every week.

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