As regular readers know, I’ve got a 1964 Austin-Healey BJ8 and, as allowed by New York law, use year-of-origin license plates on my car. In 1964, New York issued a single Worlds Fair plate, to be placed on the rear of the car. It was kept for 1965, with a red registration sticker to be added, but that was the last year New York allowed a single plate. After that, all cars were required to have plates on front and back. So I drive around with no front license plate.
My random guess is that most active duty police officers today weren’t alive in 1964, or if they were, didn’t pay a lot of attention to license plates back then. My fear is that they will see me coming without a front plate and stop me, even though it’s perfectly lawful.
The problem is that they won’t be familiar with the law that allows me to use my year-of-origin plate, and they won’t be aware that New York issued only a rear plate that year. For this reason, I carry around a copy of the law to show them. Still, that doesn’t mean they will accept that what I show them is correct, and they may ticket me or worse anyway.
But what are the chances that such a scenario would come to pass? Pretty darned good, as it turns out.
[I]t all began with confusion over a license plate on a classic car. A highway patrol dash camera recorded a trooper stating over a loudspeaker: “Driver! Remove your keys from the ignition and put them on the roof now!”
“Actually, I think I might have giggled to Bev saying, ‘well, I don’t know what this is all about’ and I put the keys on there,” Robin Bruins said. “And I turned and looked back and saw three gun barrels pointed at me.”
It wasn’t merely a stop, but a stolen car stop. The difference is fear, because cops are afraid that a guy who steals a car is a guy who might harm them. The First Rule of Policing compels them to take no chances, which in turn compels each cop to function as an independent, self-protective idiot.
The trooper said to him: “Go ahead with your right hand lift your shirt up. Go ahead, lift your shirt up. With the top of your collar!”
Multiple officers were shouting commands Robin Bruins said he found conflicting or confusing.
One trooper said: “OK. Turn around slowly. Turn around slowly.”
Bruins told the I-Team: “He was telling me to do something and I had my hands in the air and he said to do something again and I looked at him and I said, ‘are you talking to me?’ You know, what’s going on?”
Trooper: “Turn around. Turn around the other way.”
Trooper: “Yes, you!”
This is a prevalent theme when more than one cop is present, each screaming different, inconsistent commands, and each with a gun to enforce compliance with his. It’s a no-win situation for the driver; if he turns one way, one cop may shoot him. If he doesn’t, the other will. Neither really cares who does the job, and both have a perfect excuse given contradictory commands. Explain this problem to a cop over a beer and they shrug.
As the Bruins were elderly, there were issues, such as Beverly’s crutches and Robin’s medication. There are excellent reasons why Clark County Detention Center won’t allow Robin to take his own drugs on the inside, but that doesn’t change what deprivation of medication meant for Robin.
Despite the car coming back stolen, Robin Bruin’s clean record (which raises the question of what might have happened had Robin had some prior, as so many people do) made the police ponder that they made some sort of mistake.
As recorded by the dash camera, a trooper gets on the phone and tells his supervisor about Robin Bruins: “I tend to believe him. I mean I’m gonna run him before I make a determination … the guy comes back with possession … or a history of something like that. If he’s lying to me, that’s a different story. But, as of right now, I mean, he seems to be legit.”
Despite a clean criminal history check, Robin Bruins was hauled off to jail.
Exercising discretion can be scary, as you could let a heinous elderly criminal with no criminal record go free, and all the cops at the station will make fun of you. Better to arrest and let someone else sort it out. Then, it’s not your fault.
But of course, Robin Bruins was no car thief, and this was just a comedy of errors.
The registration, which the couple provided to a trooper, shows the historical plate in a box called “equipment number.” The actual plate number is in another box. The trooper ran that number but he didn’t include a “plus” sign so it came back to the wrong vehicle.
That was error number one.
Error number two came when the trooper radioed the correct “vin” number of the car into dispatch. But the dispatcher entered the wrong number into the computer, and the erroneous number came back to a stolen car, similar to the one belonging to the couple.
While this might strike some as reflecting a failure of basic competence by police, as the Supreme Court in Heien noted, you can’t expect perfection of cops. That would be unreasonable, as they’re just a bunch of hard-working guys and gals doing the best they can, and they make the occasional mistake. Sometimes they’re mistakes of fact. Sometimes they’re mistakes of law.
Sometimes, their mistakes mean an old guy with a classic car gets taken down because it’s really, really hard to figure out how to do that cop-stuff like know that you have to put a “+” symbol in front of a historical plate, or get all the numbers correct and in sequence when running a VIN.
The Bruins said they can understand an honest mistake, even two.
The Bruins might be less forgiving if one of those guns went off when Robin failed to jump as commanded.