Did a Police Officer Attempt to Imprison a Decorated Combat Veteran merely because he was an Atheist?

Did a Police Officer Attempt to Imprison a Decorated Combat Veteran merely because he was an Atheist? August 14, 2013

Road Trip!

Adam, a friend of mine who served in the Army, is currently making a cross-country road trip. He’s a pretty outspoken atheist, a combat veteran who was highly decorated in Iraq, and a pretty cool guy to boot! He was in the Army, which isn’t as cool as the Marines, but I forgive him for that every time he buys me a beer. 🙂

This year he made his way through Arizona driving to Vegas en route to TAM 2013. For those of you unfamiliar with TAM – it is The Amazing Meeting put on by the great magician James “The Amazing” Randi. I’m sure most of you know about TAM but it was my first. I ended up staying in the same hotel room with Adam and he gave me a lift back to California on his cross-country road trip. Just a few hours ago he recounted this story to me about how he may have been profiled because he was an atheist.

I was driving to TAM from Phoenix when I noticed I was being followed by a police office in Surprise AZ.  We were the only two card on the road so it was not hard to notice.  After about 5 miles of him following me really closely he pulled me over.   He asked me if I knew why I had been pulled over, I said no since I had the cruise control set at the speed limit.  He told me I had thrown my cigarette out the window. I told him I did not think this was true and showed him the astray in my car with my previously smoked cigarette butt.  He acknowledged it and then asked for my licensee and registration and asked where I was going. I have him both and told him I was heading to a convention in Vegas. After this he took a long time before coming back. When he did he informed me to be careful with my cigarettes but that my registration was 8 days overdue he would be writing me a ticket. I assumed it would be a basic ticket or hopefully a warning, instead he gave me a Criminal Traffic ticket with a mandatory court date.  I was surprised but didn’t think anything of it.

So no big deal, right?

I guess not. Oh, did I mention this is his license plate:

Yeah! Talk about having some pride…or something. I thought it was hilarious. He loves to engage people. He’s even got a bumper sticker on his rear bumper with his cell phone number so concerned theists can give him a call to debate…or denigrate him depending on what kind of a person they are.

Nonetheless, this is obviously what the officer witnessed on a lone car driving down the highway in a deserted stretch of desert. I could make some general assumptions but I’ll allow your mind to wander while I just throw some facts at you.

That’s what I found in five minutes of browsing. So with all that in mind is it too much to assume that he got profiled for being a non-believer in the state of Arizona? Actually, I would say yes that is too much to assume. Far too much. The officer could merely have been doing his job, however…

 It’s a good thing military guys show up early

Adam showed up to the courthouse a few days early when he was passing back on through Arizona because he’s a pretty squared away fellow. This is what he recounted to me:

When I made it to the courthouse before my court date I showed them my registration. I did this because I didn’t think much of it, assumed I would pay a fee after proving I had up to date registration. I’m a student on summer break without a permanent address during the summer so I had to get temporary registration through the state until I am assigned a dorm room next month.  When I showed the clerk this they told me I had to meet with the prosecutor.  When I did, he informed me of what his role would be and that I could request a lawyer at any time. Then he told me what at stake: a $750 fine and 4 months in jail with a criminal conviction on my record.  I was shocked, had this gone through I would have lost everything.  When I showed him my paperwork he changed it to a normal ticket with a $200 fine. When I asked him if this was typical he informed me that this type of charge typically gets handed to someone with a driving record or someone with over a year unregistered plates.  I was 8 days over.

The incredulity of the level at which the officer placed the charges blows my mind. I’m not a legal expert but I did research the codes involved on this sheet and what is involved with writing it up…but I assume that an officer of the law knows the difference and the probability of him making a mistake of that magnitude is highly unlikely. Here’s the charge sheet:

All Personal Information Redacted

I redacted the signatures and personal information because I don’t want somebody getting a new credit card or sending out hate mail to Adam. It’s a photocopy but you can make out the code. Section 28-2322

A person shall not operate a foreign vehicle owned by a nonresident on a highway and a nonresident owner shall not knowingly permit the foreign vehicle to be operated on a highway unless there is displayed on the vehicle the license plates assigned to the vehicle for the current registration year by the state or country of which the owner is a resident.

That makes sense, right? Except that he was exempt from that specific Section (and the following two) based upon the previous Section 28-2321

C. Sections 28-2322, 28-2323 and 28-2324 and this section do not apply to:

1. A foreign motor vehicle that is owned by a nonresident and that would be exempt from payment of gross weight fees under section 28-5432 if the motor vehicle were owned by a resident of this state.

2. A foreign motor vehicle that is owned by a nonresident and operated in this state for the transportation of property in the furtherance of a commercial enterprise and that is either:

(a) Commonly referred to as a passenger car or station wagon.

(b) Commonly known and referred to by manufacturer’s rating as a three-quarter ton or less pickup truck or three-quarter ton or less van.

And section 28-5432 (linked above) states this:

B. This article does not apply to:

1. A vehicle commonly referred to as a station wagon or to a vehicle commonly known as and referred to by the manufacturer’s rating as a three-quarter ton or less pickup truck or three-quarter ton or less van unless such a vehicle is maintained and operated more than one thousand hours in a vehicle registration year for the transportation of passengers or property in the furtherance of a commercial enterprise. An applicant requesting title or registration of a motor vehicle in the name of a commercial enterprise shall pay the fees imposed by this article unless the applicant certifies on the application that the vehicle will not be maintained and operated in the furtherance of a commercial enterprise.

The bottom line is that everything within the scope of this law exempted him from the charges he was filed under. The officer should have known. I figured it out pretty quickly by a quick internet search and the officers have their own database in every computer in the squad car.

This may or may not have been an attempt to get back at him for being an out Atheist. We might not know. I don’t want to throw out the accusation, either. But I’ll just say be careful if you are an adamant atheist traveling through Arizona. It’s clear from their leadership, their politics, their schools, and their law enforcement that they are not friendly to non-believers.

The thing that really made me pause and evaluate even writing this was that this single incident could have destroyed Adam’s career. He’s a student at Dartmouth and has a budding future ahead of him. This was the closing statement from Adam:

I did not know until appearing at the court that I was facing jail for such a small mistake.  It could have cost me my college career. The only reason I can think of why the officer charged me so heavily was because my license plate says ATHE1ST.

Well brother

I’m glad it didn’t turn out that way, but I can’t say I’m not entirely shocked. Angry, perturbed, and in a WTF state of mind…but not surprised.

Take this how you will. We’re still the least-trusted group in the nation and sometimes I’m reminded of that.


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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Buckley

    I’ve had discussions with my 2 lesbian friends about being gay and coming out and acceptance. She said from this point forward, it will be a lit harder for me that her to be open about who she is v. who I am. But, the more we come out, the easier it will be in the long run for the future.

  • busterggi

    Cops have a tendency to be bullies, religious cops tend to be theological bullies.

  • randomfactor

    As a rule, I try to avoid Arizona altogether.

    • nickvicious

      Then you’ve never been to Arizona.

  • okay, the cop was a douche, but he could also hated the guy for being from New England, (not real popular in parts of the country), or because you were driving through his state to get to vegas. (for many years, people driving through GA to FL were warned to never tell a Georgia Trooper you were on your way to FL, as you were guaranteed to get the heaviest possible ticket they could write, if not multiple tickets.

    The cop was being a douche as were the prosecutors, but there’s nothing proving it was because of the license plate.

  • Kitwench

    I don’t think we get to call the prosecutor a douche.
    He simply told the guy what the consequences and penalties were for THOSE charges.
    When handed the paperwork to examine, the prosecutor immediate made the change to a normal ticket.

    I think you can call the cop a douche.
    He did have just cause to pull the guy over – if you’re out of date and out of state you WILL get pulled over.
    It’s what followed that’s unreasonable and so we can’t know which issue he was being a jerk about.

    Bad day, New Hampshire plates, Atheist, headed to Vegas – who knows?
    Do we prefer to pretend we can read minds?

    Because that’s pushing an agenda without proof as well.

    Shouldn’t we be be focusing on the facts – Cop was over the top without cause?

  • Jennifer Nicole

    Changed to a $200 fine? In my experience, that has always been a fix-it ticket, where proving it was repaired results in a much smaller fine of like $25. D:

  • Well, I live in Arizona and have Atheist in pretty big letters on the back window of my car, and I’ve yet to be stopped. This article makes a lot of assumptions. Could be prejudice but then again it could be just a bored cop with a need to issue X-amount of tickets per time period and an unlucky driver with out-of-date tabs. Certainly the cop could have let it slide with a warning, but don’t write off the whole state based on one stupid/douchbag cop. We have enough bad press without leaping to conclusions.

    • Amanda Haworth Van Quakebeke

      Exactly what I was just saying about this article to a group. All this article is doing is throwing fuel on the fire. This driver, Adam, has a bumper sticker with his phone number on it so people can call him to debate? If he was ticketed purely because of the atheist license plate, the ticket was the officer’s way of “calling” him then. Adam asks for issues to be started over his plate and this article is doing exactly that!

      • Paul Loebe

        If someone had a license plate that said “CHRIST” on the license plate would the outcome have been different? If you answer yes then therein lies the problem. Constitutionally! That’s a big problem to me. We get the freedom to express our religious beliefs and since both he and I have put our lives on the line for it, it’s something I will express as freely or quietly as I damn we’ll please. I’ve earned it. So has Adam. And so have you. That’s how America should be and until it becomes that way I will publicize and expose any infraction into the Constitution.

      • Paul Loebe

        Had he “CHRIST” on his license plate would that outcome had been different? If your answer is yes then that is a gross violation of the Constitution. It’s profiling, it’s discrimination, and regardless of whether you think it’s inflammatory it is not justification for such action.

        As long as people violate the Constitution I will continue to “fan the flames” because its the right thing to do. I don’t acquiesce and I don’t back down. Neither does Adam.

        • Amanda Haworth Van Quakebeke

          No, if his license plate said CHRIST it would have been the same. You have no proof that the reason Adam was ticketed was because of his license plate. Not in what the officer said, not in what the prosecutor said, not in anything. Assumptions are damaging. Fan the flames all you want, I do the same. Just make sure your statements can be backed up. And btw, I am an agnostic with Asatru leanings. So don’t even think about trying to put me in the same category as the Christian zealots that would profile and harass any non-Christian. You might want to re-think that with me. I don’t back down and I back my sh*t up with facts.

          • Amanda Haworth Van Quakebeke

            Also I have been the victim of profiling by the police in this state (as I am a resident of Arizona) because of my pagan path.

          • Paul Loebe

            First, I wouldn’t denigrate anyone for being a Christian. There are lots of good Christians out there.

            Secondly, the fact that you have also been profiled for Gavin been a member of a minority belief system doesn’t bring you cause to believe the probability of this having been a case of profiling?

            I never asserted he was definitively profiled but I brought up the probability.

          • Amanda Haworth Van Quakebeke

            Here’s the thing…I’m not saying it couldn’t be a factor but saying that is is wrong. There’s absolutely no facts to back up the claim. In my case, I had the facts..I had the paperwork to prove it. Your statements of the city of Surprise is in Maricopa County, Maricopa County is home to Sheriff Joe, the graduation thing, etc. BTW, the graduation thing with attesting faith in god or whatever it was was dropped. It never got off the ground. Bad example to use. You ignore the fact that the State of Arizona has an atheist Congressman WHO gave the opening “prayer” which he actually read a piece by Carl Sagan and this was a few months ago, I believe. I’d have to look it up. You need to research about this state. I love my home state, there’s no better dusk or dawn (notice, I say dusk or dawn…night skies go to the Northern states/countries where they get to see the Aurora Borealis). Unfortunately, if something can be taxed, our government is going to tax it. And they’re going to tax the hell out of us. If the cops/sheriff’s departments see a way to write a ticket, they’re going to. This is a money hungry state. Yeah, we have bad issues (Sheriff Joe, the now repealed as unconstitutional law that gave law enforcement the right to pull someone over if they were suspected of being an illegal, etc) but when fuel is thrown upon the fire like this, you don’t realize what it does to those of us who are against those things. You don’t realize the harassment that we go through. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve been accused of being a racist just because of being from AZ. I’ve been accused of being intolerant. And I’m one of the ones fighting to get rid of Arpaio and I’m one of the ones that fights for equality everywhere and in everything.

          • Amanda Haworth Van Quakebeke

            And even with how you phrased everything, you made it where people are actively saying that Adam was indeed (without knowing any of the actual details that the courts and Adam know) profiled and it did indeed get people bashing on the people of Arizona. Not everyone is in agreement with our governor, our sheriff in Maricopa, or other high profile government officials. There’s a lot of us trying to get rid of them so we can stop being profiled ourselves.

  • Sharkseatmore

    This kind of thing happens to a lot of different groups, but mostly for the same reason. The Easy Buck. Cops figure that it’s easy money to give someone from out of state a ticket knowing that most people will pay it instead of travelling back to show up for court. My dad (30 years military) got a ticket for 1 mile over the speed limit in New Mexico. I was pulled over in Utah and searched because I had Florida tags.

  • Jesus

    I happen to serve in a the higher intellectual service known as the USAF at Luke AFB. I happen to also be an atheist. I also am a BJJ instructor for some surprise pd. shoot me his name, it should be for an interesting conversation if I get in touch with him. Email: Jesus.artesi@gmail.com

  • Kimberly Snow

    I am sorry but for a Dartmouth student couldn’t you run spell check?

    • Emily

      Spell check isn’t going to catch mistakes like “card” instead of “car”, or “office” rather than “officer. Also, my sister and a number of intelligent people I know have difficulties with spelling that in no way reflect their level of intelligence (my sister suffers from fairly severe dyslexia). And finally, those are the kind of errors that I personally tend to make when I’m typing on my phone, and my autocorrect decides that I wish to use a different word than the one I’m trying to type.

    • Paul Loebe

      He was on a phone for that email.

  • MontraRevol

    for the mental case called “tim farley”

    yes, you have made “REAL ENEMIES”


    all brains no balls

    homo = atheist?




    how we won the James Randi Million Dollar Paranormal Prize



  • Eric Padilla

    I’m not an expert in AZ traffic law, but the code excerpts included in the article do not look like they would have exempted him from the traffic fine. The key words are “furtherance of a commercial enterprise” to qualify for the exemption. Again, don’t know exactly how AZ defines it, but generally that means he would of had to be using his car for business, which with the information provided does not seem to be the case. More likely he was pulled over and ticketed with that part of the code because he was an out-of-stater and therefore more likely to pay the fine instead of challenge it, providing more revenue to the municipality.

    • Paul Loebe

      Oh he certainly would have received a fine. But the level of fine with a mandatory sentence?

      • Eric Padilla

        Based on similar laws (like showing insurance or car inspection) the odds are he was charged with the correct statute, which carried a larger penalty, and then when he showed the corrective action (i.e., paid registration) the greater penalty was waived for a fine. Note the statute just says that if the owner of the vehicle does not have a valid registration then they can be charged, it makes no mention of any grace period. So technically, even registration that is 1 day overdue could still trigger penalties under the statute. It can be argued that perhaps the mandatory penalty is too great for the crime but that is an issue for the legislature or city council and one the officer has no control over. Additionally, that may have been the only statute that the officer had to choose from for the particular offense.

      • persephone

        Cop is a dick. He figured Adam wouldn’t challenge it, probably wouldn’t even show up to court, since he wasn’t local, and he could soak the evil atheist out of stater for as much cash as possible. If Adam hadn’t shown up, but just contacted he court, he probably would have been assessed additional non appearance fees on top of the.original $750

  • beenie

    I’m an AZ native. Small towns do not like outsiders- esp. up North where that polygamy thing is going on. They also have quotas for tickets. Could very well be the plates tipped the officer off that he was an outsider first.

  • nickvicious

    I think your friend is really reaching for it. Arizona is NOT a religious state. In fact, Phoenix was recently named the 8th least Bible-minded city in the country. We have the only atheist congressperson. Basically, NOBODY I know goes to church. The cop was a jerk, end of discussion. The only person to blame is your buddy for not renewing his registration.

    • persephone

      Wishful thinking. All it takes is one asshole cop, and there’s a whole bunch of jerkwads thanks to Arpaio and his worshippers. I live in an area that’s considered liberal, but the sheriff’s department here is almost as bad.

    • Rex Shea

      If you really think that, you should spend a little time in Mesa, or Tempe (both are suburbs of Phoenix), just sayn’

      • David Corpus

        Mesa is a Mormon town and is a huge exception. It should be avoided by every non-Mormon. It took me 18 months of living there to understand that. Tempe is not an overly religious city, and I’ve lived here for 15 years.
        Surprise, where this ticket was issued, is a small town with a handful of good ol’ boy cops who know all the locals from Octane Lounge, their only landmark watering hole. Surprise makes lots of revenue by issuing scumbag tickets to outsiders. Did his plate make a difference? Perhaps, perhaps not. The officer accused him of littering. The littering ticket would have been significantly less expensive. If the asshole cop was honest and said “Let me give you a littering ticket because I need to meet my quota and I really don’t want to write the bigger ticket” the world would be a better place and we could solve the Police State issue.

  • Malby

    Seriously, you think the cops in that town can read?

  • LarryCook

    In my forty years of driving, I’ve been mistreated by cops on four occasions. I have never been anything but polite to all police officers I’ve ever come in contact with yet I was once placed in handcuffs for five hours for no reason (long long story, but my violation was failure to return a set of NY license plates when I moved to CT – a $20 fine) and on two occasions I was in fear of having the crap beat out of me after being repeatedly manhandled. I repeat, I was polite to the cops at all times – no wise guy remarks, no sarcasm, but it only takes one asshole cop who has a prejudice against something you are or something you represent to cause you a whole lot of trouble. A bad cop is dangerous to piss off.

    I believe we should all be able to express ourselves about anything we want, but having “ATHEIST” emblazoned on our license plates is the same as putting a bullseye on your back at a rifle range. Wherever you drive, that one bad cop who hates Atheists will find you and he will break your balls relentlessly. And around your town, the police are going to see you over and over again. They will talk about you and again, that one bad cop will find you. So do what you want, but beware what’s going to happen and be ready for it. I admire your courage, but I’ll never trade places with you. Bad cops are scary and dangerous.

    • Mikko

      Bad cops can be fixed

      • LarryCook

        How? How many bad cops have you met? There certainly should be zero tolerance for their abusive behavior, but that takes integrity and guts on the part of their supervisors. Give a little man a badge and he becomes a little man with a badge. And even if they can be fixed, they can’t be fixed on the spot while you’re in handcuffs. That’s the time to be on your best behavior so things don’t get worse.

        • Mikko

          The bad cops i met got degraded to take care of papers (you’ll ned good cops as friends)

      • HelenaHanbasket

        Not if Arpaio likes them. HE IS CROOKED!!!

  • danving queen

    “Pretty squared away” fellow let his registration expire and tossed cigarette butts out a car window [how would the cop have known otherwise]…sounds sloppy and unkempt to me. I do have experience with douchebag cops, though. I would read this more as targeting an out of state driver than targeting an atheist.

  • HelenaHanbasket

    Maricopa County and JOE ARPAIO SUCK ASS.
    He is a racist bastard and profiles more than just race, OBVIOUSLY.
    Google “Arpaio wrongful death”. Your friend is lucky TO BE ALIVE.
    I am a 3 gen. AZ native. Just moved last year to TX.