I pulled a car over recently because it had an illegal temporary license plate attached to it.
The driver, who I couldn’t see as I turned on my lights, was a young, black woman.
She cracked open the door, as I stood outside her window, to tell me that the window didn’t work, and that’s why she hadn’t rolled it down.
“That’s fine,” I said, then I asked her if she had any clue why I stopped her. Of course, she said she didn’t.
“Your temporary plate is illegal,” I told her matter of factly.
“This is my cousin’s car,” she said. “What do you mean illegal? You mean it’s expired?”
“No ma’am, I mean it’s illegal. Somebody copied and tinkered with it.”
She furrowed her brow and gave me a quizzical look as though the person before her had three heads.
“I was just going to the store to get some groceries,” she finally responded.
“Do you have a driver’s license?” I asked.
“Can I see it please?”
The young lady rummaged through a bag and handed me a food stamp card and a non-driver’s identification card.
“Is this all you have?” I asked. “Neither of these is a driver’s license.”
Again, I got the puzzled look before she turned to half-ass rummage through her bag and console, ostensibly to find her driver’s license.
As she rummaged, I chuckled to myself about how many times I’ve been through this very same scenario.
“Ma’am, please stop. Stop rooting through your bag and look at me,” I said.
She looked at me, more deflated than puzzled this time.
I looked at the ID that she had given me and asked her if the name on the card was her.
“Yes, that’s me. I promise.”
“It’s a lovely name, ma’am. Very unique.”
“Thank you. Are you going to give me a ticket?” She must have thought she found an opening where we were getting along to ask that so abruptly.
“We’ll see. You may get a whole bunch of tickets, honestly. Let’s try this one more time. Do you have a driver’s license? I’m not asking if you have one on you, I’m asking if one exists anywhere in the world with your information on it.”
She looked straight into her steering wheel and pursed her lips.
“No.” She whispered.
“No?” I asked.
“No sir.” She said.
“Have you ever had one, or is it revoked or suspended or what?”
“I ain’t never got one,” she said.
“Okay. But this non-driver’s license is you for real?”
She turned to me and said, “yes, officer. I swear that’s me. I’m not lying to you about that.”
“Okay. And you’re twenty-two years old?”
“Okay. Do you have any warrants or anything like that? Please tell me you’re not wanted for murder or some egregious act of terrorism.”
She smiled and assured me that she was not wanted for anything and I told her to hang tight while I went back to my car carrying her food stamp card and her non-driver’s ID card.
It was cold and windy, so the car was nice and warm when I eased back into the seat and turned the computer towards me so I could run her information.
Having been told that she had zero warrants, I was hopeful that it was true, but alas, she had four, all from other jurisdictions.
I sat in my nice warm car and pondered what to do.
Arresting her would get me out of the cold for a little bit, so that’s a pro.
Writing her several tickets would maybe get her attention and be the wake up call she needs to get a license and the rest of her shit together, so that’s a pro also.
Arresting her and writing her tickets would both get me out of the cold and would surely get her attention, so that’s a another pro in favor of taking action.
I shook my head at the computer screen and muttered, “no warrants my ass” to nobody in particular and made my way back to the woman in the Pontiac Grand Am.
She opened the door to speak to me again and I returned her food stamp card to her.
“You’re a wreck,” I told the woman. “You have four warrants, not zero.”
She again gave me the I have three heads look of utter bewilderment and said, “what? No way!”
“Way,” I said, and explained to her what they were for and what police departments they were from.
“Are you going to take me to jail?” She was calm, but tears started to flow from her eyes. She wasn’t bawling or anything, they were those tears you can’t control that just race out of your tear ducts all of a sudden. They were maybe tears of frustration.
“Step out of the car please.” I said.
“Am I going to jail?” She was still calm and teary. “Do you want me to turn the car off?”
“Nah, you can keep it running,” I answered.
I motioned her to come to the sidewalk towards the back of her car. I noticed two mechanics watching us intently from across the street, amazingly, neither of them was recording us with a phone.
The woman was petite. She stood before me in a pink panther t-shirt and some fuzzy Hello Kitty pajama bottoms. She crossed her arms to try to keep warm.
“Four warrants is right about the number where I seriously consider taking a person to jail,” I told her.
She opened her mouth to respond, but before she could make a sound, I continued, “look at this temporary plate. The VIN doesn’t go to your car and it’s expired. You may as well put a neon sign in the back window begging officers to pull you over, you know that?”
“It’s not my car. I’m so sorry,” She said. “I just wanted to get some groceries for my kids.”
I explained to her that I could think of at least seven tickets to write her without even trying to look for less obvious violations. I explained to her that the cost of taking care of the bench warrants and the tickets would easily exceed a thousand dollars.
As she was about to respond again, I looked over her head and said, “but it’s Christmas.”
She closed her mouth and wiped her tears.
I had been feigning some aggravation, but not in a condescending way, just sort of enough to keep her from knowing that I never intended to take her to jail for sure.
I became a little more serious with her and said, “I don’t care about your traffic warrants from other jurisdictions, and I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt when you say this isn’t your car and you didn’t know about the plate being illegal. You’re twenty-two years old though, so it’s time for you to get your shit together, don’t you think?”
“Yes. I think so.”
“Hey, you can drive a car, so I’m sure you can get a license. It costs like twenty dollars or so. Can you imagine how much better it’d be to have a valid license and not become a nervous wreck everytime a cop is behind you?”
She chuckled, “yes. You’re so right about that.”
“Okay, I’m gonna leave. Since you don’t have a license, please don’t drive at all, or at least until I’m gone. Tell me you’re walking home.”
“I have to walk home?!”
“I said I want you to tell me that you’re walking home, or taking a bus.”
Another quizzical look…
“I don’t want to SEE you drive this car away, but I’m going to leave and be out of sight shortly. Whatever happens when I’m gone happens. Understand?”
She smiled a great big, white toothed smile and said, “Yes. Thank you.”
“Bah! Get your shit together,” I said as I was walking towards my car with my back to her.
“Officer,” She said.
I stopped and turned to find her walking towards me.
“Can I give you a hug?”
I was caught off guard. Nobody has ever asked me that on a traffic stop.
“I never turn down hugs,” I said, and that’s the truth.
So we hugged, right there on the street in North St. Louis. A petite twenty-two year old black woman and a not so petite EARLY forties white man must have been quite a sight because the two mechanics across the street looked at us like we both had three heads.
As I opened my door to get into my car, one of them gave me a thumbs up, even though there’s no way he could have known what just happened.
I gave him a nod and a thumbs up in return and drove off hoping that three more people have a little bit more faith in the officers who serve their community.
Other than the hug, this is a very typical encounter when I conduct a traffic stop. I lose interest pretty fast, especially when people don’t act like total douchebags right off the bat. I’m lucky to have some discretion where I work, and this is typically how I choose to exercise mine, particularly now that I have many moons of experience under my belt.
Feel free to tell me if you think I should be more of a hard ass. I probably won’t change, but I’m interested to hear your take.