north-carolinaIt’s official: The leaders of the North Carolina State Highway Patrol, and perhaps, many of the officers, are apparently determined to make life worse and more dangerous for themselves and all law enforcement officers. ABC11 reports: 

How fast can you go on the highway without getting the attention of police? Anything under 10 miles per hour over the speed limit is okay, right?

Well, the North Carolina Department of Transportation is ready to burst the bubble on the widely believed 9 mph cushion myth.”

“The governor’s highway safety program is ramping up what’s being called ‘Obey the Sign or Pay the Fine’ speeding enforcement crackdown.

Apparently, there’s a belief out there that if the speed limit is 65, officers or troopers won’t pull you over if you’re doing 1 to 9 miles per hour over the limit – a so-called buffer zone.

The DOT says that’s not the case.

Law enforcement says beginning Thursday, they’ll target and ticket anyone driving above the posted speed limit.

Let’s review, gentle readers. Law enforcement officers around the nation are in trouble. Not only are the President of the United States and the DOJ stirring up public hatred of the police, not only is distrust of government, and its most visible symbols–police officers–at an all time high, not only are officers being murdered for no reason other than that they are police officers, the NC troopers decide it’s time to really piss off not only North Carolina citizens, but anyone experiencing the misfortune to drive through that state.

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Governor McCrory, your state police need serious and immediate help with public relations.

But wait a minute, shouldn’t everyone obey the law? Of course, but this is not nearly as cut and dried as one might think.

Professional, rational police officers understand that they should never descend into issuing “chickenshit” tickets. A chickenshit ticket is a citation issued without any intellect involved, and without due regard to human nature and the realities of life. A trooper sees a motorist traveling 66 MPH in 65 MPH zone, so he nails that scofflaw! Chickenshit ticket. A trooper sees a motorist driving through an intersection against a yellow light. The rear wheels of the motorist’s vehicle are still within the far plane of the intersection when the light turns red, so he nails them for running a red light. Chickenshit ticket. That’s usually called a “pink” light, by cops, and anyone issuing pink light tickets usually gets an attitude adjustment from their Sergeant for being badge heavy–taking themselves too seriously and abusing their authority.

The bottom line is that no officer should cite anyone that is not obviously intending to break the law. Not only does that anger that citizen and everyone they know–oh yes, they’re all going to hear about it, for months and whenever the topic of the police comes up in the future–it destroys respect for the police and the law. This is why traffic robo cameras so anger citizens. There is no discretion, no accounting for human nature, no consideration of good intentions.

Consider also that the manufacturers of police radar units commonly certify them accurate only to +- 1 MPH. The same is true for laser devices, though some of those manufacturers claim them to be perfectly flawless. Rational cops know better. What this means is a citizen scrupulously trying to drive 65 in a 65 MPH zone could easily be doing 63-67 MPH. But it’s even worse.

The speedometers of motor vehicles are not calibrated for absolute accuracy. The speedometers in police vehicles–special factory built police package vehicles–are, but not the same models without those police goodies. At 65 MPH, a citizen doing his best to obey the speed limit could easily be traveling 5 MPH over the limit, perhaps even more, even though his speedometer is displaying 65 MPH. Keep in mind that speedometers are affected by tire wear, by new tires slightly different in size than original equipment tires, and a variety of other subtle factors. Police officers know this, or they damned well should know it.

The reality that we all must adjust our driving and speed to the vehicles surrounding us must also be taken into account. On many highways, anyone scrupulously trying to do the speed limit will find themselves to be an impediment to traffic, an actual danger to others, yet unscrupulous officers ready to write for one, or even a few, miles over the limit, will end up writing people for doing exactly what everyone else was doing, except they were trying harder than most to obey the law. This is why officers do, in fact, operate with so-called “buffer zones.” Such things are not formal policy, but informal applications of reason that recognize human nature.

NCHP Officers. I have no idea what they think--or intend--regarding this issue.

NCHP Officers. I have no idea what they think–or intend–regarding this issue.

This is why officers must always use reasonable discretion in law enforcement: they can’t be badge heavy hard asses, because when they are, they’re going to end up arresting people that are consciously doing their best to obey the law. Good intentions have to matter. They’re what hold the system together.

What’s that you say, you’ve had a few tickets, but you’ve never been arrested? Oh, but you have been arrested. An arrest occurs when a citizen is detained by the police, and a reasonable person would not feel they were free to go. When the police limit your freedom of movement for any significant amount of time, you’ve been arrested. There are a few exceptions, the most common of which is “stop and frisk,” AKA a “Terry Stop,” but even then, the police may hold a citizen for only about 15 minutes, just long enough to check their identify and determine if they’re up to no good.

When a police officer makes a stop for an observed traffic violation, he has probable cause to believe a crime has been committed–a misdemeanor to be sure, but a crime–and that a specific person, the driver of that car, committed it. That driver is absolutely not free to go until the officer is finished with his business. Ninety-nine point something percent of the time, officers will release traffic violators on a written promise to appear, but they don’t have to do that. They can, if necessary, take a traffic violator into physical custody, take them to jail, and go the whole nine yards. They don’t do that because it would be ridiculously inconvenient for them and for everyone else. The system would grind to a halt if every traffic violator had to be processed at a local jail.

During my patrol days, I routinely wrote more citations than our entire traffic division, and I did it without a single chickenshit ticket. I would not write a stop sign or red light ticket unless the driver really blew through the intersection, or actually caused an accident. I wouldn’t write a speeding citation unless the driver was traveling at least 13 MPH over the speed limit. Even ignoring the error factors of radar and laser devices and the calibration difficulties of speedometers, it’s not hard for anyone, even if they are trying to obey the law, to look down and find themselves traveling five or more MPH above or below the speed limit. Ticketing people for that kind of daily, momentary lapse of intention and attention builds an enormous reservoir of bad will. However, if someone is traveling 38 MPH in a 25 MPH zone, they really don’t have an argument, do they? To do that, they have to be purposely speeding, or so inattentive they need a wake up call.

I also softened the blow by changing the speed to the lowest, least expensive fine category. This worked because in my jurisdiction, there were categories of offenses. Traveling 1-5 MPH over was X amount, and the cost rose with the speed. I always treated people with kindness and professionalism. I treated them as I would want a police officer to treat my wife or mother. My conviction rate for traffic offenses was nearly 100%–you can’t win ‘em all–and while people weren’t wild about the tickets, they usually thanked me, and I suspect, didn’t badmouth me, or the police in general, to their friends.

In North Carolina the Highway Patrol is about to shoot themselves–and police officers everywhere–in the foot. This is not unexpected as HP officers, of all kinds of law enforcement officers, tend to be the least flexible and most militaristic. That’s their culture, from the first day of training until retirement. In most states, it tends to be who and what they are, though there are always institutional, and individual, exceptions.

Considering the realities of policing in contemporary America, officers must be even more public relations conscious than usual. The North Carolina Highway Patrol’s plans are not only remarkably stupid, they’re uniquely dangerous. If Governor McCrory has a clue, he’ll give himself a real legacy item and put a stop to this before it starts–unless, of course, he, or his minions, are responsible for this policy in the first place…