Friday, July 14, 2017

Story time: an outside view of a random traffic stop

“I’ll be back,” my cousin says to me one early Saturday evening.

He rarely left the apartment that he shared with his girlfriend except to go to work or dinner in Washington, DC, which were both only a few miles from their place, or the nearby gym to occasionally shoot hoops. The remainder of his free time was spent cooking Sunday dinners, sitting on the balcony sipping smooth Ciroc and diet cranberry juice, or watching football, “Stebie” J on Love and Hip Hop, and Swamp People on the History channel. He was more of a homebody that an out-in-the-street sort of man, so I expected him back rather soon.

The phone rings barely 15 minutes later. He’s only a few blocks away from home – Arlington. Crystal City, to be exact, which is a majority white suburban neighborhood that houses the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and a slew of restaurants and government contractors. A police officer has just pulled him over, and it sounds slightly more than a routine stop since he needs my help.

“Can you look in the nightstand and get my title?” he asks. “And can you bring it to [redacted]?”

I wonder if he means “title” or “registration” but figure the registration should’ve already been in the glove compartment, and a title indicates ownership. Then I wonder why he needs to prove to this officer that he’s the owner of this vehicle that he’s driven for several years.

I find it and run to the elevator and through the garage to my car. As I drive the few blocks to where he’s stopped, I notice that every light I approach is red, which leads me to ponder what possible infraction could he have incurred in that short distance when he could hardly move.

I make a left turn and see the flashing blue lights. Traffic is now at a crawl because the right lane is blocked; the situation must be so dire that the officer doesn’t even allow my cousin to drive into the 7-Eleven parking lot that they sit in front of. To passersby, he must look like a criminal.

I park in front of my cousin’s car and roll down my window to indicate to the officer that I am the person my cousin called. I await the officer’s approach, and then I hand him the piece of paper.

“I didn't ask for a title,” he snaps.

His tone sends me straight into defense mode. I'm not privy to the conversation prior to the phone call, but I'm certain he was nearby when my cousin called me – most likely listening – so he had to have heard the request. All the officer had to do was correct him, but he comes across as a jackass and shifts my mood. I suddenly don’t want the officer to think he intimidates me.

“Well, that's what he asked me for,” I snap back.

I still don't know what the issue is at this point: speeding, which was highly unlikely, or improper lane change, or broken tail light, or what. The officer allows me to exit my vehicle and walk back to my cousin’s car to talk to him; then he joins us while my cousin fills me in.

My cousin had two vehicles at the time. He had just renewed the registration on one vehicle and obtained a brand new one on the other vehicle about a month or so prior to that. He thought he put both cards in their respective glove compartments, but the card in my cousin’s possession didn’t match the make and model of the car he was currently driving. It matched the second vehicle, so the officer assumed the fancy Lincoln with the tinted windows was stolen or illegally tagged.

“Can you check the glove compartment in the truck and bring it to me?” my cousin asks. “Maybe I mixed up the cards.”

“Okay,” I say.

I look at the officer.

“You have five minutes,” he says.

We stood four or five blocks over from my cousin’s high-rise with a stop light at the end of every block. It took five minutes to cross only two, not to mention it took an additional five minutes to get through the traffic jam he created. In retrospect, it would’ve probably been faster for me to return to the apartment on foot.

“Five minutes?!” I exclaim. “With these [stop]lights? Are you serious?”

The officer gives me a blank stare.

“Five,” he replies, followed by some idle threat that I chose to ignore because he was being unrealistic about the time and surely he wasn't going to pull out the handcuffs in a seemingly progressive neighborhood over something that appeared so minor and easily fact-checked.

Years before that incident, I was pulled over one July 4 because my decals on my tags had expired June 30. The officer said that she knew I had renewed my tags because her system reflected that, so she simply wanted to ensure that I remembered to affix the new stickers. Then she ended the traffic stop with “Have a good evening.”  We parted ways with no paper exchanges in less than four minutes. So why couldn't this officer see that my cousin had two vehicles with up-to-date registration?

But I didn't want to waste the five minutes in a debate, and I didn't want to act a fool.

Still I returned closer to 15 minutes later.

“I only found one for the truck,” I say, defeated.

The cop grows more annoyed; my cousin and I grow confused. How in the world can he have two brand new registrations for the same car? But the officer doesn't care. The whole scenario is suspicious yet satisfactory to him.

I return to the driver's seat of my car and keep an alert eye on my driver's side mirror.

I see a backup officer arrive. He and the current officer approach my cousin’s driver's side door and open it. I assume they ask him to step out of his vehicle because he gets out and then faces his car. One of the officers pats him down.

“Shit,” I say to myself. “They're really about to arrest him.”

He cooperates and remains in position as the officers conduct a search of his car. I want to get out of mine and ask, “What do you think you're doing?” But instead I keep sticking my head out my window to remind them that “I'm still here! I’m watching you!” I wonder how'd we go from a traffic stop to an arrest over registration.

My cousin later tells me that he was only pulled over because the officer decided to “randomly” run his tag at the red light. On Monday we find out that the chatty DMV clerk had made an error: She issued two slightly different cards listing the truck on both of them, but a very careful inspection of the cards would've revealed the discrepancies and indicated which card actually belonged with which vehicle.*

But on this Saturday evening, the officers find nothing, which meant there would be no reading of any rights or clinking of any handcuffs. Finally the officers tell my cousin to move his car to the 7-Eleven parking lot. We wait for a tow truck and watch the driver pull the Lincoln onto the flatbed. We then look at each other, shake our heads, and get into my car so could I drive him the five blocks back to his home.

*If I’m not mistaken, he also made a sort of complex request at DMV. He wanted to move the license plate from one vehicle to the other, which contributed to the same make and model to appear on both cards.

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