One Philadelphia traffic cop recently endured a firestorm of criticism and possible criminal charges due to a deal he posed for a driver of an unregistered vehicle. The officer offered to let the motorist go with a warning if the motorist bought several $10 tickets to an annual fundraiser for policemen and firemen. If the motorist did not buy the tickets, the officer would take his car. The motorist bought 3 tickets for $30 and went on his way.
The officer also remarked that the motorist’s pink windshield wipers, a symbol of the fight against breast cancer, made the motorist look like a “fruitcake.” The encounter was taped and the police officer was in a great deal of trouble, reassigned to desk duty and forced to hand over his service weapon. A YouTube video of the encounter is accessible here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C32xpVFL9xg
Once the video “went viral,” there was a lot of discussion about the traffic stop. The anti-gay slur was deemed just plain bigotry while the ticket sale was deemed a favor by some but extortion by others.
I’m on the fence about the ticket sale. Perhaps I have had too few negative experiences with law enforcement but I lean toward harmless error regarding the ticket sale, for two reasons. First, I have completed off-beat requests by law enforcement to avoid worse penalties, without taking offense.
Long, long before the 9/11 attacks that tightened up international travel, I frequently crossed the border into Canada. When I encountered one American customs officer who personally knew me, he reviewed my license (which was adequate ID at the time), then made me sing the 3rd verse of “America, The Beautiful” in order to reenter America. (That’s the verse with “pilgrims’ feet,” in case you’ve forgotten). On another occasion, I received a speeding ticket, which was dismissed because I bought ice cream cones for the District Attorney’s secretaries, as ordered.
Secondly, the officer was letting the motorist off the hook for a violation that would have been quite inconvenient and expensive. If the officer seized the uninspected motor vehicle, the motorist would have to contend with the traffic ticket, retrieving his vehicle from the impound lot and paid towing and stowage fees. That would mean hundreds of dollars on top of the inconvenience. Instead, the officer made him buy 3 tickets to a fundraiser, which was relatively harmless.
On the other hand, the officer’s actions bother me a great deal, for two reasons. First, the officer could have just let the motorist go with a warning. That has happened to me several times, even when I’ve said, “Eh, you caught me red-handed, officer.” Secondly, if officers are not held accountable for deviations like requiring the purchase of fundraising tickets, where does it stop? One can imagine and, in fact, has heard of situations in which officers demanded sexual favors, cash, whatever, in exchange for letting someone go.
I’m unsure of how that should be handled. Should we insist that officers simply enforce the law or give us a break without any consideration? Or should we deem this officer’s ticket sale harmless error? What do you think?
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