A pretty lousy practice by the police.

Last week I was driving Michaelyn up to Springfield, MO from Arkansas when I saw a state trooper pull a u-turn behind me and come right up on my ass.  I pulled out my cell phone and set the audio recorder (just in case officer Friendly decided to be stupid), got my license and stuff out, and about then red and blue lights came on.  Admittedly, I was confused.  Michaelyn will vouch that I drive like a grandma and was easily doing five under at the time.  Turns out I didn’t have a front license plate, which you’re supposed to have in Missouri.

So officer Friendly took my info and ran it and came back and informed me that I had an unpaid ticket from back in the day and that he had to arrest me.  I got cuffed and everything.

I got hauled off the the Ava courthouse to post bail (which was $2,000 for an $85 offense).  The cops there were actually pretty chill.  They didn’t even handcuff me to the bench (also, no joke, in whatever database they were punching my info into, I am now associated with the alias “The Half-Blood Prince”.  This was after I asked if tater salad was taken).  We got to chatting, during which they told me that the state trooper who pulled me over for no front plate must’ve been the most bored cop in the state.  That made me giggle.

While we were sitting there shooting the shit (and I was regaling them with magic) I had a conversation with the sheriff.  You see, when I was arrested, officer Friendly asked me if I had any drugs on my person or in my car.  I asked the sheriff if anybody ever answered “yes” to that.  The sheriff said they didn’t, which surprised neither of us.

I asked why cops even pose the question, since they’re going to search the person anyway and the cop already know the answer he’s going to get.  The sheriff told me that if the person says “no” and then drugs are found, it’s another felony charge on top of that.

I then asked if the goal was to stack felony charges on someone.  The sheriff, who seemed to me to be an extremely nice guy, paused for a moment before saying it wasn’t, but then he never said what the goal was.

That seemed pretty shitty.  Even the innocent are often in a panicked state when confronted by the police.  In my experience, the police often do what they can to encourage the state of panic (likely in the hopes that people will do something stupid).  The natural inclination is to protect yourself, and often people do things when they are freaking out that they would not do if they were thinking clearly.  Like the sheriff said, anybody with any sense can understand why the answer is always “no” and would have no realistic hopes of getting a “yes”, even when drugs are present – that’s why the police search upon an arrest anyway.  It’s already a bad enough conviction for drug possession, and I don’t see any humanity in setting people up to make it worse.

I suspect I’ll write a griping letter to the representatives in Missouri who will promptly ignore it.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • pjmaertz

    Holy shit what a bad break. Hope it’s all taken care of now.

  • b00ger

    Never talk to police. Always plead the 5th. Even if you haven’t done anything wrong. There’s a reason why your Miranda warning states, “anything you say can and will be used against you.” Also, that seems a bullshit reason. Several states, some of which directly border southwest Missouri only require 1 license plate and the cops fully well know this. Although, maybe you should pay your tickets.

    • baal

      This advice ^. Answer only what you must and otherwise provide no information and no dis-information. The system is not reasonable nor sane.

  • invivoMark

    Also annoying: asking if you know why you were pulled over.

    Clearly, they’re going to tell you anyway. Are they just asking to see if you’ll give them another reason to write a ticket that they didn’t think of?

    • Michaelyn

      It’s so if you say something like, “Because I was speeding,” they can get a confession right there.

    • John Horstman

      I always truthfully answer, “No.” I may or may not know about something illegal I was doing, like speeding, but I cannot read minds, so I have no clue what the officer’s motivation for pulling me over was, especially given how unevenly traffic laws are enforced.

  • smrnda

    The police are agents of repression; their goal is to keep people down and I doubt they’re encouraged to reflect much on the justice, effectiveness or rationality of what they’re asked to do. Given the huge social cost on things like the war on drugs (which so far has ruined a lot of lives but hasn’t ha any meaningful effect on drug use) the real goal of the police is to be there to keep citizens in a state of nervous agitation.

    I actually don’t like the way police work. First, the police should serve and protect, which means that if people think their procedures or policies are unjust, they should change them. The cops are here to serve and protect US, not some abstract ‘law’ which serves no one.

    Either way, that’s a pretty lousy deal over 85 dollars. I’d imagine that the cost of screwing with you greatly exceeded 85 dollars.

    This reminds me of a guy I ran into who was put in jail for some fine he didn’t pay (I think it was driving with no insurance.). He had to work it off in jail, which, given the low earning he made, meant that busting him actually cost the government money.

  • Tyler Pounders

    That is why you NEVER, EVER talk to the police in any capacity. It is your right as an American citizen to use your 5th amendment right to not incriminate yourself. There is never any reason to talk to the police. Nobody has ever talked themselves out of being arrested when the cops have evidence of wrongdoing, and an untold number of people have talked their way into handcuffs when they could have kept their mouth shut.


    • unbound

      I was going to hunt down that video myself. It is well worth the watch explaining why you shouldn’t talk to the police.

      The police have no requirement to provide anything positive you say which might support you in court (and they typically won’t), and every requirement to provide anything negative you say which will be used against you in court.

  • http://peternothnagle.com Peter N

    We have given the police a very difficult job, one that is impossible to do perfectly and to everyone’s satisfaction, particularly those who disagree with certain laws. They are carefully hired, extensively trained, and closely supervised, but they are, of course, people like the rest of us, and they make mistakes. Keep in mind that they are agents of the government, which is us, so if we are not satisfied with their performance, it is up to us, not them, to take the responsibility to change that.

    • smrnda

      I’d agree, but there are significant barriers to ordinary citizens changing the laws. I’ve been trying to improve the behavior of the police in my community for years by every means I can, and so far, we haven’t put a dent in anything. I’d argue that the US government is designed to make changes difficult.

  • Ray

    Cuffed for an outstanding ticket and arrested? What a waste of resources. Don’t they automatically catch up with you at renewal time and refuse renewal until past fines are paid?

    • ButchKitties

      They can catch you even earlier than that. About four months after I got a speeding ticket I received a letter telling me my driver’s license was suspended due to an unpaid ticket. The two kickers:

      1. The letter arrived about a week after the date my suspension started, meaning I drove on a suspended license for a week without having any idea it was suspended. Fortunately I didn’t get pulled over during that time.

      2. My “unpaid” ticket had in fact been paid in full well before its due date. Good thing I had saved the receipt. The BMV worker who reinstated my license told me that paid tickets get reported to the BMV as unpaid all the time. She was nice and waived the reinstatement fee before I could ask her to.

      Moral of the story: When you pay a traffic fine, GET A RECEIPT and keep it in a safe place.

  • greg1466

    Is your car registered in MO? If not, does the state that it is registered in require a front plate? If not, then it was a bogus excuse to pull you over.

    • John Horstman

      It might be that the way the laws are written, it’s a requirement to drive on the roads. I got a (several hundred dollar) ticket in MN for driving w/o a front plate, even though we don’t require them here in WI (technically, if the DoT issues one 2 plates, one must display 2 plates, while if they issue only 1, only 1 must be displayed; the point is that 2 plates are not always required). I was going to fight it, but the cost of missing a couple more days of work (it was on the Sunday I was to go home that I was ticketed) and hanging out in Minneapolis was more than the cost of the ticket. As a result, I never got to find out if the cop was just being a dick, or if I really should have been ticketed (my other defense was that my car was ticketed while parked – even if it’s a requirement to display 2 plates to drive, they have no way of proving that I had been driving with only 1 plate – hypothetically, I might have removed the front one after parking). This is another problem with the legal system: functionally, it’s often (for minor infractions) better to falsely admit guilt (well, plead no contest) than to truthfully assert innocence, despite the fact that one is supposed to be presumed innocent and therefore really shouldn’t have to deal with bullshit false charges as frequently as people do. But, as smrnda points out, the legal system (and especially police forces) exists to protect the privileged (mostly wealth-privilege) at the expense of everyone else. While not all cops are terrible, a disproportionate number are, and picking that profession renders one immediately suspect, requiring one to prove hir good intentions trough good actions. Generally speaking, fuck the police.

      • greg1466

        I hear you. The point is, and I’m not a legal expert so I could be wrong, I think the cop had no legal grounds to pull him over. I think it was just an excuse used to pull over an out-of-state car. Cops use excuses all the time to pull people over. I got pulled over once for what I assumed was speeding, as I was doing 5-10 over the speed limit. The cop specifically told me he pulled me over for making a right turn on red (legal in PA when not posted otherwise) without coming to a complete stop. Now I happened to know that I had stopped and said so. Yes I know, never argue with a cop, but I didn’t argue, I simply stated that I had in fact stopped. He sat in his car for several minutes and when he came back he apologized for the delay, but momentarily had thought the car was stolen. Turns out that when he ran my plate, the tag came up stolen, but as a NC plate, not a PA one. So we had a short conversation about it and he ultimately said that the real reason he pulled me over was that he was looking for DUIs (it was 5 am or so) and as he came over the hill toward the light to my left as I made the turn, he saw me swing wide, so thought maybe I was drunk. So he didn’t actually SEE me not stop, but because ‘swinging wide’ is not a violation, he needed an excuse.

  • Brad

    Correct response to the drug question appears to be “I don’t know, I suppose it’s possible.”

    • Randomfactor

      I wonder if someone said “Yes,” and then when an actual search failed to turn up any, they could be prosecuted for lying to the cops…

  • Stevarious

    Think of it this way. Say you answer ‘No’ to the question he asked you. The cops then decide (perhaps they are really bored or failing to make their quota for the month) and decide to toss your car. Say furthermore that ten years ago, the previous owner of your car chucked a roach into the trunk and it falls down below the spare that’s been there since you bought it. You have now actually committed a felony.

    Lets go one step farther. Lets say this cop is dirty, and likes the look of your shiny new car. He plants a bag of cocaine in your trunk, then asks you if you have any drugs in the car. If you say ‘no’, you have STILL committed a felony! Even though the cop who asked you the question planted the drugs!

    The purpose of the law is absolutely to create more drug convictions.

  • Brad1990

    …There are states in the US where you only need a rear license plate? What if someone tries to take down the plate of someone who committed some sort of crime, but they can only see the front of the vehicle? That seems a verys tupid state of affairs to me.

    • greg1466

      Don’t know how many states there are, but PA only requires a rear plate. I’ve never been pulled over for it though. And since I work in NJ, which DOES require 2 plates, I’m in that situation on average 5 days a week. Maybe it’s a bigger problem in states which require 2 when they are not bordered by a state that only requires 1, there for they see it less frequently. I’m still more inclined to think it was an excuse though. And yes, from a reporting/identification point of view, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to only have one plate. not sure why it’s that way.

  • Armored Scrum Object

    I’m increasingly leaning toward the notion that police interrogation tactics are basically the evil twin of clinical psychology. Where a psychologist would try to build emotional order and cognitive clarity/rationality/resilience, the cops want you as distressed, confused, and vulnerable as possible, and have well-developed techniques to bring about such a state. The more I think about it, the more I’m surprised that most of their tricks are legal. The one that especially blows my mind is the polygraph “examination”, which is really just a semi-structured interrogation with a veneer of Science[TM] and a generous helping of false hope that the machine can exonerate you.