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You, and John Law
I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice. It is a basic statement of the law as it exists when I wrote it, and some advice based on my 30 years of experience as an officer. The most important thing for you to understand is that you can discuss the law with the officer alongside the road, scream and shout and jump up and down, but like trying to teach a pig to whistle, you won't accomplish anything, and it only annoys the pig (and the pig reference does not refer to the officer, now or ever.) The whole encounter is an intricate dance, and you can take it to the bank that he probably knows more than you do about the steps. Even if he doesn't, you're sitting at his poker table, and he's holding a royal flush and a straight razor in the game. So do it his way, and argue later in court if need be.
Someday, somewhere, you will look up in your mirrors and see him behind you, lights flashing, and perhaps a grim look on his face. And you will think "Awww, SHIT!" From this point on you are in a damage control mode. Remember - you can't win, but you can minimize loss.
First of all, he is back there representing the society you move in: he thinks you have done (or might have done) something that society does not want you to do.
Or maybe he's just there to tell you that your bedroll's dragging down the road behind you on a bungie cord.
So get your head in the right place, and remember who you are dealing with.
His training dictates that HE control the encounter, not you. To assure that he can do so he has been given various tools, among them blunt objects, nasty chemicals, and firearms. He has been trained to use them and given permission to do so if, in his judgment, it becomes necessary. While there may be arguing after the fact of using them about whether or not he should have, it remains that you may be in the hospital or jail or morgue while that argument goes on.
He may also be nervous or even frightened about the encounter. Who knows? It might be his very first day of working alone and you may fit the description of a guy who just raped the mayor's daughter and shot another officer during the getaway. The point is, don't do anything that will contribute to his case of nerves, which all smart cops have to one degree or another whenever they are approaching someone they don't know.
Women officers: I have known outstanding female officers, some of whom woulda charged hell with a bucket of water, but nearly all were smaller than most men. Use of force policies for most departments allow an officer to shoot when he or she feels in danger of great bodily harm or death. That perception is subjective. The 6'4" 220# male officer who works out regularly will look at you in a different light that way than a 5'2" female who has kids at home. She can, with complete justification, drop you in your tracks under a situation that would not justify him doing so. Most of that goes for very small male officers, too.
So, here we have an armed individual on a mission, and that mission is little ol' you. He has a gun, some degree of permission to use it, he may not be very bright to start with, and may have just discovered his wife in bed with the milkman before he came on shift. Be nice.
Always remember that to you this is just a traffic stop: to him, it may be a felony stop, and he won't want you somewhere surrounded by people if something goes to hell. You don't know what's going on in his head, so follow his instructions. As soon as he hits you with the lights give him a wave of the hand to indicate you know he's there, then look for a safe spot to stop - he doesn't want to get hit by traffic any more than you do. If, for instance, you are on a busy road with no shoulder but can see a wide spot ahead, signal your intention that you intend to proceed a ways: I usually just pat my head, then point ahead. He'll let you know if he wants you to stop RIGHT NOW!
As soon as you are stopped the real danger begins for him: keep that in mind. If you are going to shoot him it will be now, or soon, and he knows that, so don't do anything he could misinterpret or that would even puzzle him.
Put down your sidestand if you want, but stay on the bike. You'll be all right taking off your helmet (if you wear one,) but don't go fumbling in your pockets for your billfold yet. Cops worry about hands a lot, and with good cause. What I do is fold my hands on top of my tank, so they are always in plain sight, and sit still, posing no threat to him.
Humans rely tremendously on eye contact to "read" a person, and believe me, that officer wants to read you when he gets there. Furthermore, sunglasses are depersonalizing, and you want to establish a human contact with the officer, looking him in the eye to convince him of your innocent sincerity (remember about sincerity: once you learn to fake that, you've got it made.) So I always take my sunglasses off, too.
At one time I saw a law enforcement bulletin that showed a device made by an outlaw motorcycle group. It had a shotgun shell mounted inside a handlebar, so that when a "trigger" was flicked on the bar, the shell fired out through the end of the bar. I suspect that the users of it had self-protection from their "brothers" more in mind than use against cops, but it made a lot of officers paranoid about approaching bikes.
The officer will have radioed in your license number by now, and the location of the stop. He may wait to approach you until he gets a negative back on "stolen" checks. Registration, warrant, and criminal history checks take a bit longer, so they'll probably be running while he comes up to you. He may even wait for backup. Your job is to be as patient as you can. If you are sitting there cooking in a jacket, turn back and tell him that you are going to take it off - again, don't do anything he doesn't expect or understand.
You may see the officer unstrap his gun as he walks up to you. If so, shame on him, not for doing it, 'cause he should, but for letting you see him do it. It's bad psychology and it's not the way he was trained. He should do it every time, but before he gets out of his car. Don't take it personal, though, if he forgets his training.
He will, as usual, ask for your license, registration, and depending on the state, proof of insurance.
Here's where you can let him know that you know this dance. Things will go much better if he understands that he is dealing with someone willing to cooperate, and who doesn't want to threaten him.
Ask him if you may get off the bike, then do as he says. If you do get off, fer cryin' out loud, pick a spot and stay there. Just stand still and let him lead.
Tell him where your documents are, then gently reach where you said. I usually carry my license in my wallet, but my registration and proof of insurance are in a fairing pocket with spare gloves. What that means is that I had better not also carry my gun in that pocket, 'cause guaranteed, he's gonna get REAL excited if I open that pocket and reach into it.
For the same reason, you don't want to carry them in a saddlebag or dufflebag. He will have every legal justification, on the grounds of self-protection, to look through that bag before he lets you go digging around it. In addition to just being a general nuisance to you, any contraband he finds while he's doing it is fair game for seizure.
Don't bother asking him why he stopped you; he'll get around to letting you know. If he asks you anything about the offense, you are not obliged to answer, even if you KNOW you were doing 90 in a 45 zone. Just give him a noncommittal answer like "Gosh, I really couldn't say." A response like "You're the smart guy with the radar; you tell me" is guaranteed to begin a downward slide in your relationship with the officer.
S'pose you're travelling back east and decide, because radar detectors are illegal in Virginia, to put yours away while you're there. Doesn't matter if you are using it or not, possession is a violation, and the detector is contraband subject to seizure. Make up your own scenario. I just don't want him pawing through my stuff.
If you have some sort of legitimate (or at least plausible) excuse, tell him about it, but don't beat it to death. "My speedometer broke yesterday" may well get your ticket reduced to a "fix-it" defective equipment, or maybe even just a verbal caution. "Gotta go potty" will seldom get you any slack unless you actually dribble on his shoes while talking to him - that's pretty convincing, but I've never been able to make myself do it. You would like to avoid that descent. There is a good chance he may not have made up his mind about the ticket yet, especially if it was a borderline offense, or if it was just a "pretext" stop (more on that later.) There is absolutely no reason at all to gratuitously piss him off; it cannot possibly work to your benefit in any fashion. You don't have to kiss his ass, just be polite and let him know by your actions and responses that you are as eager as he is to get this encounter over with as quickly and safely as possible.
But, if you just gotta try his patience . . . here's one.
It's a nasty day, and a cager gets pulled over for speeding.
The cop says, "Isn't it kind of dumb to be driving so fast in this storm? "
The driver replies, "Who's dumb? You're the one standing out in the rain."
Once he has your license in hand, and has relaxed a bit (you have been working at relaxing him, haven't you?) he will go back to his car to run a warrant and other checks on your name while he considers his ticket. Once he comes back he will have made a decision, and the ticket, if he is gonna issue one, will already be written. In most states once it's written he can't "unwrite" it or change it, except to ADD more stuff right up till the time you sign it.
Some people refuse to sign a ticket. That's really dumb - you should just sign it, take your copy, and not argue. After all, you do just want to be on your way; right? Your signature is a promise, in lieu of bail, to appear in court. If you refuse to sign his only other option is to haul you in right then to assure that you DO appear. If he makes that decision you probably will not be given the chance to say "Uh, let me reconsider." Kinda like a Ghurka and his knife, once the handcuffs come out they very seldom go back without being used. You will wind up in the pokey waiting for an appointment with the magistrate, who will set bail so you can get out. Then you'll still have to go to court to face the charge, and the judge will be annoyed that you have complicated his docket. Believe it or not, judges do get aggravated, and it can show up in how they handle a case and impose sentences.
Getting a ticket, then ignoring it is really pretty dumb too. It may only be for an illegal lane change, but the court will take a very dim view of your character if you ignore it and will issue a warrant for your arrest. That warrant will go into a computer system. Then someday, when you have forgotten all about it, you'll get stopped again. The officer will discover the warrant, see that you can't be trusted to appear on your own, and will very likely haul you in. Shame on you, dummy. If you did the deed, pay the fine. If you didn't, go fight it. But don't just ignore it.
Cops are by nature curious; some might even say snoopy. They are paid by society to be that way, and snoopiness properly indulged leads to more arrests, which leads to promotions. So expect an officer to be snoopy; it's his thing.
Snoopy can only work though, if he has someone to snoop about. And to do that, he needs to initiate a contact with you.
Which leads us to "pretext stops." This is an event where, for some reason, you have aroused the officer's curiosity. He wants to find out more about you.
I found that once I retired from law enforcement and grew a beard and long hair officers became more curious about me than they were before. Some of the more socially sensitive among us might call it "hairy profiling."
The way he can do that is to watch you ride until you screw something up, maybe bust the yellow line for a moment, or go over the speed limit, or whatever. That offense becomes a perfectly legal justification for him to pull you over, which initiates the traffic stop described above. It also justifies a perfectly legal ticket, which you may or may not get, depending on how you handle the encounter.
So, he'll run your plates and your name to find out more about you. He'll also pay close attention to his gut, not the part that demands doughnuts, but the part that talks to him about what's going on. Once a cop has a few years on the job he's a fool if he ignores it, and if it's talking to him he's gonna be with you a little while till he figures out what's setting it off, or just has to give up.
I am describing here a situation where the officer is talking to you after a borderline offense. He's probably made a righteous stop, but he may not write you a ticket. However, keep in mind that cops are public safety officers. If he saw you doing something really stupid and unsafe, say you came screaming around a curve, passing on a yellow line, and ran him off the road, you're gonna get written. I'm sure you can fill in all the blanks of what I'm talking about, but just in case you can't - don't be looking for a break when you don't deserve one.
The issue of carrying a gun while you ride is a tricky one. State laws vary, but most require that if you have a concealed weapon permit, and are carrying, (that is, if it is on your person, or within your reach) you notify the officer of it immediately when he approaches you, whether he asks about it or not. You should do it. Follow his lead after that, as to how he wants to handle the situation. Part of that pursuit of satisfaction may involve a search, which leads us to the next subject: roadside questions and searches.
First of all, the officer can ask you anything he wants. You don't have to answer anything at all, once you have identified yourself.
Most CCW permits are not valid out of their home state though, so what do you say if you're on the road away from home and he asks if you have a gun? My carefully-considered answer tells the officer that I am not "carrying" a weapon (as opposed to not having one, which I probably do, buried in my saddlebag.)
As a self-protective measure, he is entitled to know whether or not I have one on my person. To ask more than that though, is to request that I confess what may be a crime in his state. No Miranda warning is required before he asks, either, so don't get confused on that issue. If he pursues the matter and gets specific about having one somewhere else, I would just reply again that I'm not carrying. Your failure to respond directly does not, by itself, become probable cause for him to get a warrant and search your bag for something.
The laws on search and seizure are a complex subject, with laws varying from state to state, and changes in law by the courts being frequent. However, the following statements are pretty generally true across the country.
The officer may, depending on the totality of circumstances, decide to pat you down (although it is not routinely done on traffic stops,) and to search areas within your immediate reach for weapons right away. If he feels something that might be a weapon, he may take it from you. If it turns out to be not a weapon, but some other form of contraband (say, your bong, if that's what you do,) he may legally seize it and use it as evidence in any subsequent criminal proceedings.
This is a good reason for you to move away from your bike if he will let you. As long as you are sitting on it, he may reasonably look into your tank bag, fairing pockets, etc. If you took your jacket off, leave it on the bike. It's also a good reason for him to tell you to stay on it or stand by it - it may allow him a quick peek into stuff under the guise of a self-protective search. Yeah, believe it or not, cops will stretch a point just like anybody else.
If you get stupid and do something that leads to your arrest, the police will do an "inventory search" of the vehicle when they haul it off, ('cause you sure won't be riding it) or when it arrives at the impound yard. That, and the treatment it may get while being moved and stored, are ample reason to avoid being arrested even if you like jail food and the surroundings and company there.
If you are arrested, and if there is a "spare" rider who has a motorcycle endorsement riding with you, you should be allowed to turn your keys over to that person to avoid having the bike towed in. Nothing says that because you are going to be taken in, the bike must go too, unless it is being seized as evidence. In that case, you've got bigger problems than a ticket.
This is a fairly complicated part of the law, and is much litigated. If you'd like to read a little more about it from a law professor, go here: The author teaches at North Carolina Wesleyan University, and he deals with the subject pretty clearly.
What he finds on a "patdown" may also form the basis for "probable cause" to search further. Depending on the circumstances, he may need a warrant, or not; that's too complicated to go into here. Let me caution you though: if he says he's going to search, make a firm objection, clearly stated, and try to get him to acknowledge your objection, but do not try to interfere if he decides to do it.
What a cop dearly loves though, is a consent search. That's where he says: "Do you mind if I have a look at your gear" or something like that. He is entitled to ask that question just to indulge his snoopiness; he doesn't need a reason to ask it.
If you say "No," you don't mind, well doom on you for stupid if he finds something, like your gun or personal vibrator, or whatever you wish he hadn't come across.
The answer to that question should be a firm, clear "I do not want you to look into my gear. You do not have my permission to do it. Are we clear on that?" If he's the kind of cop we'd like to have out there he'll just grin and say "OK," knowing you've read the Constitution too, and he'll do his thing with the ticket book, and send you on your way.
But cops come in all varieties, levels of experience, intelligence, and attitudes, so we need to talk further about this.
If you refuse permission, and he hasn't written the ticket yet, it will impact his decision about writing you. That being the case, my thinking on the matter is to tell him you'd prefer to dispose of the reason for the stop before you make a decision on the search. It may piss him off enough to write you, but if you flat say no, it will anyway. Once he's gotten the justification for the stop out of the way you can work on dealing with his curiousity, but I would NEVER say yes to such a request.
If you tell him "No" he may say he'll have to get a warrant. That's nearly always a bluff. The law says that if he's going to search you and your bike he needs a warrant unless: (a) you consent; or (b) you may escape with the evidence or contraband, or destroy it before he can get a warrant. If he thinks you might do one of those things, he may search immediately, but what he really ought to do is immobilize the situation while he gets one.
Federal court decisions, and similar decisions in many states allow an officer with probable cause to search a vehicle under the theory that its mobility makes it likely that contraband or evidence can be spirited away before he can obtain a warrant. If he talks to you about obtaining a warrant though, he probably knows that his probable cause is shakey, that it might not stand up to scrutiny in court later, but if he can get your permission to search he's legally on very solid ground, with no probable cause required.
He knows all that. That being the case, if he actually had probable cause he'd be on the horn with a judge requesting a warrant (or going ahead with the search without one, and without your permission), instead of trying to bullshit you about it after you already refused permission to search. But you can't blame him for trying.
Tell him to have at it; go get one (after all, that's what the Constitution calls for.) Then just assume a comfortable position while he figures out if you are bluffing. My guess is that after a few minutes of hemming and hawing and scraping his foot in the dust, and maybe a little radio conversation, he'll tell you to git. If he doesn't get around to it in just a few minutes, and if the ticket has been dealt with, ask him if you can go.
If he tells you "No," ask him why not.
If he tells you that he is actually requesting a warrant, then he is entitled to keep you there (immobilizing you and the evidence he suspects to exist, as mentioned above) until he either gets it, or the request is denied. Under that circumstance, you are not under arrest, but neither may you leave.
The law also allows an officer to detain you briefly (and "briefly" depends on circumstances) to investigate what's going on, if he has "reasonable suspicion" that an offense has taken place or is taking place. "Reasonable suspicion" is less than "probable cause", but it must have some objective justification. It does not justify a search, or application for a warrant. In other words, he may keep you around while he calls for a dog to sniff your luggage, or waits for a witness to come by and have a look at you, but not "just because." He needs to be able to point to something that has made him suspicious that you may be carrying drugs, or that you may be the guy who just robbed the bank. He does not have to justify it to you on the spot, but a reasonable officer will make some explanation to you. If legal justifications must be made, it'll be later, to a judge.
If he just says "No," you can't leave, and he's not making a warrant request or waiting for something specific, you should ask him if you are under arrest. If he says "No," then tell him you intend to leave. Make it a clear statement that he must respond to, and don't take an ambiguous answer.
If he says you may not go, then you are in actual fact under arrest and must accept that. You can only deal with it in the legal arena, not there by the road.
On the other hand, if you don't ask, and just hang around while he waits for something to develop, well shame on you - he oughta ticket you for stupid loitering, if nothing else.
No doubt some departments do have quotas, although they won't call them that; it'll be something else like "desired level of enforcement." Most don't though. (An exception is highway patrols & metro traffic units, where traffic is their primary job and real law enforcement is secondary. I think some of them do.) This paragraph is not about that, though. It is about the fact that cops, like most other workers, get appraised for the job they do, and arrests are a pretty good measure of law enforcement performance. A cop who doesn't make arrests is probably spending too much time in Denny's or his girlfriend's place. A lot of what people think are "quota tickets" are actually pretext stops (remember them?) where they talk themselves into a ticket that they might have walked on if they had behaved better.
As I said earlier, this is all an elaborate dance, with certain steps required of each party. You are entitled to know what is going on, and to attempt to exert your rights. What you may NOT do is to attempt to impose your version of the law on the proceedings by the road - there's no point even arguing. Do what the officer says, period. Fighting it if he's wrong must come later, in court. It's kinda like a football game where the judge is the referee, and he makes all his calls and announces the score once the game is over.
If you think you are going to court, or intend to file a complaint, take notes. Courts are wary of testimony from memory, knowing how fallible it is, but give a lot of credence to what is called "present recollection refreshed." That is when, right then in court, you can't pull the recollections up from your memory, but a set of notes or something can jog it. So make notes; you can bet the officer will make some after the encounter. If you can, start right away, beginning with date, time, and place, and his name and unit number if you can see it. He doesn't have to give you his name, but he should provide his badge number if you ask. Don't let notetaking interfere with complying with his orders, and if he says to knock it off, object, but do so. Then get right to it without delay after the incident. Do NOT try to take pictures while the event is taking place. If he uses bad or unprofessional language, try to get it down verbatim. If he uses force on you, note what it was, and what, in your opinion, brought it on.
And don't lie. I don't expect him to; why should it be OK for you to do? If you're willing to be a liar just to beat a ticket then you're just pond scum, and I hope he hauls you off.
You and Your Buds
I usually travel alone, but most guys don't. Group stops call for a special approach.
First of all, try to avoid it being a "group stop." One guy, preferably a guilty party, should pull out and stop, but the other guys should go on ahead a bit to clear the scene (and anybody with an outstanding warrant somewhere will just have to make his own decisions about stopping.) They should be far enough away not to pose an immediate threat to the officer, but close enough to see what's going on. They don't need to be there for the officer to talk to, and if they are down the road a bit they will not be so inclined to join in the discussion and perhaps contribute to causing a scene. They should get as far off the road as possible to avoid being a traffic hazard. If the officer tries to call them back, they should just let him know that they will wait right there while he deals with the guy he has.
The group should just stand there and observe; don't try to participate. If somebody wants to take pictures, go ahead, but don't make a circus out of it.
And if everyone stops together don't be surprised if the officer tells everybody to stand by while he waits in his car for backup. He's not a coward if he does, he's smart. It ain't TV, and life's not a dress rehearsal where if you get shot to doll rags you get to stand up and try again.
CAUTION: Remember what I said above about an officer having a case of nerves? If he has a case with a single bike, imagine what he will be like when there are several guys out there. If he is a smart cop he thinks tactically, along the lines of "How can I get shot here, and what can I do to avoid it?" He should be aware that the group is a potential threat to his life. DO NOT DO ANYTHING TO WORRY HIM ALL THE MORE! Get off your bikes if you must, but stand still. Don't go reaching into luggage and bags and pockets, and fer chrissake, DON'T TRIANGULATE HIM. That's when the front group starts splitting up, creating a potential crossfire situation for him. You're not a cop (well maybe you're not. All sorts of people read this thing,) so you can't understand the survival paranoia that builds when things like that happen. You may have to step into the woods to take a leak, but he doesn't know that's all it is. Do it, and you may see him move back to his car (cover, you know) and uncage his shotgun. I would.
None of us is crazy about rules, and even less crazy about being called to account for violating them. I didn't write this essay to tell you how to "beat" a cop in the game. And I sure didn't do it to throw disrepute at them. Most of the cops I knew were pretty reasonable, average guys trying to do a tough job. The problem with cops is that each and every one of them is human, with about the same proportion of jerks, maniacs, etc as the rest of mankind. If you call him an asshole to his face he is supposed to stifle his overt response, but that doesn't mean he won't try to find a way to play catchup. And you may rest assured that whether he has a wife and kids to go home to or not, he still wants to go home standing up when his shift is over, not being carried on a gurney.
There are rules in place to govern how the interactions are supposed to go. You follow them, use some common sense, and hope he does too. Most times he will. If he doesn't, well, you won't gain one damn thing standing by the road yelling at him, so just concentrate on building good karma and hope his catches up with him someday.
And sometimes, it's just like this:
A man was speeding down the highway, feeling secure in a gaggle of cars all traveling at the same speed. However, as they passed a speed trap, he got nailed with a laser and was pulled over.
The cop wrote him, handed him the ticket, and was about to walk away when the man asked, "Officer, I know I was speeding, but I don't think it's fair - there were plenty of other cars around me who were going just as fast, so why did I get the ticket?"
"Ever go fishing?" the policeman asked the man.
The officer grinned and replied, "Ever catch all the fish?"
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