Author: <span class="vcard">Principled Observer</span>

A problem of photo enforcement is that it encourages optimization of efficiency of collecting fines as opposed to justice. In my experience, these systems have almost invariably led to a culture of enforcement and prosecution based on the bottom line, with protecting the innocent becoming only an afterthought.

Background

Supporters of these systems contend that cameras are cheaper and more efficient than employing officers to do the same job. They figure that a wizard in a box will never be wrong and we can somehow achieve 100% enforcement, with no collateral victims. With this mindset, it follows that any person who contests a ticket is simply a wrongdoer looking for a loophole to escape responsibility. If such a wrongdoer wants to fight his ticket, the logic goes, the odds should be stacked against him. All of that innocent until proven guilty stuff the founding fathers worried about is no longer important when we have a wizard in a box with perfect accuracy. Further, it costs money to run the courts, so if a wrongdoer wants to present his case in court, it seems only fair that he should shoulder the cost to contest.

The problem: there is no wizard. The systems do make mistakes. I’ve personally been the recipient of two such mistaken citations. The first showed another man in another vehicle altogether. The second was issued in violation of French law and clearly shows me driving below the speed limit. Here I will describe both in terms of costs to the defendant.

Citation #1: Scottsdale, Arizona

The first ticket was dismissed eventually, but not before a couple weeks of shenanigans. First, I wasted a couple hours of my vacation talking to the judge and then meeting with the prosecutor. The prosecutor agreed to a dismissal, but also accused me of wasting her time. Unfortunately her office made a mistake on the paperwork so I received a letter the following week from the court informing me of my new court date. I called the prosecutor and eventually this was all fixed, but not without significant stress and time on my part at a time when I was already in the midst of a big move from Ohio to Iowa. Because of all the legal maneuvering, I ended up with 20-something entries on my criminal background check, which will now be visible to potential employers, etc., even though I was not at all involved in the alleged offense (and the prosecutor’s office agrees). I understand that the records are generated automatically when dealing with a court, but I figured I should have some ability to get them expunged given that this was all because of a simple mistake. However, the court in Scottsdale has a policy not to expunge these tickets (I really don’t get the rationale here). So in the end, the City of Scottsdale is libeling me in perpetuity, for objecting to being charged with a crime I did not commit and for which they had zero evidence.

But the city of Scottsdale’s libel didn’t start there. It turns out that some companies have longstanding freedom of information act requests for all photo citations. For this reason, when I found the ticket in my pile of mail, it was surrounded by advertisements for how to beat my ticket. I generally support freedom of information. In fact, I successfully fought the Ames Police Department when they violated such laws. But, this seems like a situation where my personal information should have been redacted. More importantly, while the correct approach to government transparency is beyond the scope of this post, this shows that false citations have a very real impact on defendants’ privacy.

Citation #2: Écully, France

I was found guilty of the second violation, which (allegedly) occurred in France, though hopefully you will read my story because my innocence is really quite apparent. The question of guilt or innocence isn’t really what’s important here. Just note that I had a strong case. This wasn’t some minor point I was arguing. I deserved a proper day in court because I had what many people would agree were reasonable concerns about the accuracy of the ticket. To get this day in court, I had to do the following:

  • Pay an additional EUR 53.24 over the base EUR 45.00 fine (total spent = 218% of the base fine). This could have been much, much more. The judge has the ability to increase the fine to approximately eight-fold, but in practice it seems to be a minimum of double the initial fine. If the judge finds your argument unreasonable, you’ll likely get the high end.
  • Wait 1.5 years for resolution.
  • Write at least five letters (in French) to the authorities. Some went unanswered, including requests for technical details of the radar device that took the photo.

In the following sections, I’ll describe the decision to contest a French ticket in terms of decision theory. I did take a graduate course devoted to this topic, but actually I always found it to be really intuitive. Here is a comprehensive graphic, to be described in the following sections.

decision tree - contest a ticket

Alternative #1: Admit guilt and pay immediately

The first possibility, upon receiving a photo ticket, is to simply pay up. In France, for infractions on roads with a speed limit greater than 50 km/h and with a ticketed speed of less than 20 km/h over that limit, the fine is EUR 45, if paid within 15 days. Bear in mind that this 15-day clock is already started by time you receive the ticket. France does not include photos with the original citation. I suspect this is for two reasons:

  • Many people will just assume they broke the law and not consider contesting, but the photo might change their mind.
  • Because the French government is incompetent slower than molasses, it is unlikely that a defendant will receive the original ticket by post and also have time to request and receive the photos by post before the 15-day early payment deadline has passed. Of course it’s not smart to make the decision to contest until you examine the evidence, so this presents a dilemma.

The expected value of choosing this alternative is easy to calculate. There is a 100% chance that you will pay EUR 45.

Alternative #2a: Contest, but only in writing

Granted the decision to proceed to court needn’t be made until a verdict is reached on the written appeal. However, as no new information would generally be available at this later date, there is no value in delaying the decision, meaning that the process can be simplified by assuming you make this decision up front.

The expected value of this alternative can be calculated by multiplying the probability of each outcome by the respective amount paid. Because we do not know the probability of succeeding in court, we cannot solve this in absolute terms. But, we can solve for the success probability above which a rational person will contest. The math shows that a rational person should be willing to contest in writing only if there is greater than a 54% chance of success.

From looking around the internet and from my knowledge of other jurisdictions, I think 54% is very optimistic for a written appeal. It seems that these guys reject almost everything, likely to force defendants to wait another year and proceed to court. Note that I’m not necessarily claiming that the individuals who read the appeals are crooks. In fact, I believe the system is set up by crooks, so that the decision-makers’ options are fairly limited. Also, don’t forget all the normal stuff about how the average person has irrational faith in the wizard who resides in the camera. These people have no real training or incentive to believe you, much less find you innocent.

Alternative #2b: Contest, with willingness to proceed all the way to court

The computation for this final alternative (in fact, there is technically an additional level of appeal, that I won’t cover here) is more involved because the tree has two levels. The best we can do is make the crazy assumption that probability of success on the written appeal equals that in the courtroom. In this case, the math shows that the probability of success must be greater than 32% at each stage for this to be a rational choice (given a willingness/ability to wait 1.5 years).

In reality, the chance of success in the courtroom is likely greater than in writing (and the probabilities are not independent for a given case), but I doubt very much that the win probability in either phase is as high as 32%. Not only can we see my data point, in which I lost even though the camera’s certification was clearly violated, but other anecdotal evidence leads me to believe the chances of success are extremely low in most places in the world (again, irrational belief in wizards, and all that).

The realistic state of freedom in such a system

Of course the calculations above were quite contrived. There is no way to know what your chances are before contesting a ticket using a given argument. This exercise was simply intended to demonstrate the problems with a pay-for-liberté court system.

We can see how they ratchet up the cost at each phase in order to tilt the scales. Given that succeeding in such a trial is extremely rare, unless you actually have a photo of a different car committing the crime, the rational choice is always to just admit guilt and pay. The system is unscrupulous by design, so you would only contest due to strong principles and free cash flow, not because you expect to be vindicated. Poor people don’t really have the liberty of contesting a traffic ticket. I suppose they at least get a free lawyer in extreme circumstances, which undoubtedly helps their chances, but if you barely have enough money to eat would you really want to risk paying twice the original fine?

A fair justice system is only possible if the financial burden is placed on all residents. Deterrents, in the form of financial or other burdens, should be eliminated to the extent possible. Additionally, funding the courts on the backs of losers is a clear conflict of interest. Remember, no safety is gained by collecting fines from innocent drivers.

As a final note, yes I am happy with my choice to fight. The system did lose money on me, which is usually the most you can ask for in modern court systems. I would generally encourage readers to make the same choice.

Arizona court France photocop speeding

I received a photo ticket in France back in 2013. Because the French system is incompetent engineered to deter innocent drivers from contesting tickets, it took more than 1.5 years to finally get my verdict. Of course I was found guilty, which is the typical result when fighting a traffic ticket. (Remember the time Deputy Melchi didn’t know the speed limit?) But in France, they have taken it to new levels of arrogance and disdain for motorists.

In short, the French government is violating their own rules for the usage of their radar units. This is causing innocent people to be ticketed, and the judicial system in France is a farce in its slowness and unwillingness to consider the idea that the prosecution might be presenting bullshit evidence.

It all comes down to what’s known as the cosine effect. Explained for laymen, an object appears to be moving faster when it moves away from a radar gun as opposed to moving across the radar beam. If an object is traveling perpendicular to the radar unit, the speed measured will always be 0 km/h. This corresponds to cos(90) = 0, which is multiplied by the actual speed to give us the measured speed. Likewise, cos(0) = 1, which explains the case that the vehicle is traveling perfectly along the radar’s line-of-sight. If you Google “cosine effect speeding ticket,” or something to that effect, you’ll find that 95% of the results state that cosine effect always favors the motorist. But not so fast!

This advice was true in the good old days when a cop manually clocked speeders and issued tickets. If a police car is parked alongside the road (or driving in the oncoming lane), the radar beam is not perfectly aligned with the car’s trajectory. In fact, to align the beam in this way would require the cop to be in the vehicle’s path, which is not really possible. This offset amounts to maybe a couple percent error in favor of the driver. Because every situation is different, there just isn’t a way to automatically correct for this. Therefore traditional speeding tickets can sometimes be a bit low. This generally has a trivial effect because the angle is very slight.

However, photo radar units are often fixed (in concrete) with respect to traffic. Even mobile units require sufficient setup such that we can consider them to be fixed as well for our purposes here. When choosing the device placement, it makes sense to use a rather steep angle to traffic, in order to clock and photograph only a single vehicle. This will lead to a severe cosine effect. If I’m a software engineer (as I sometimes am, in fact) developing a new photo radar system, I know this angle between the radar beam and traffic. This means that I can hard-code a correction percentage. This way even though my raw measurements will be low, the number printed on the ticket will be correct. And this is precisely what has been done. The certificate for the Mesta 210C (French), a very common photo radar device in France, specifically states on page 2 that the unit must be positioned such that the radar beam is at a 25-degree angle to the trajectory of traffic. This is a suitable assumption for most tickets, but there are two exceptions:

  1. Apparently there is a common problem with mobile devices being incorrectly set up by the police. This is likely accidental in most cases, as the average cop probably doesn’t know the trigonometry well enough to understand the effect of an error or if that error will favor the government or the driver. Additionally, the police officer probably doesn’t have much personal incentive to bias the readings.
  2. If a car is changing lanes toward the camera, the angle will be greater than 25 degrees (as pictured below) and thus the recorded speed will be low (in favor of the driver). If a car is changing lanes away from the camera, the angle will be less than 25 degrees and thus the recorded speed will be high (in favor of the government). Note the cynicism required to assume that something that is anti-people is pro-government.
Radar angle diagram

Normally any error due to cosine effect will be relatively slight. But in my case, cosine effect alone is sufficient to prove that my ticket was issued in error. Additionally, the Mesta 210C must have other factors leading to additional error at incorrect angles, as shown in the table at the bottom of page 2 in this study conducted by the government in Metz (French). Note that the error in recorded speed is quite severe for even a one- or two-degree error in radar placement.

In my case, we can do the following calculations to find the error purely due to cosine effect. First we can calculate the angle of the vehicle to the camera line-of-sight. The best way to do this is using a wheel. We can always be certain that wheels have the same circular shape. The distortion of this shape tells us the angle with respect to the camera. The following image shows a rough calculation, using the inverse sine of the width-to-height ratio.

Calculation of actual vehicle angle

The top photograph is from another certification document. Disregard the direction of travel, as the system works the same either way. We can assume that this photo is correct, but note that my calculations show 26 degrees. This is probably because using a pixel ruler to measure a wheel is not extremely precise. My calculations could easily be off by a degree. The bottom photograph is from my citation. My calculations indicate that the car is traveling at a 15-degree angle relative to the camera’s line-of-sight. This difference is so large we can see it with the naked eye. It could also be off by a degree or so in either direction, but it is very safe to say that this angle is nowhere near the 25 degrees mandated by law. Additionally, to change lanes at a 10-degree angle, as depicted in this photo, is very unlikely given the realities of vehicle dynamics.

So now that I’ve shown the angle to be incorrect, we know that the camera was used in violation of French law and that the ticket never should have been issued. However, for completeness, we can calculate the actual error due to the cosine effect. In an optimal situation, the camera is at a 25-degree angle, so if a vehicle is traveling at 90 km/h then the measured speed will be 90 × cos(25) ≈ 82 km/h. The system can correct for this by dividing the measured speed by cos(25) to get the actual speed. In my case, assume that the vehicle was only traveling at a 15-degree angle to the camera. If my car had been traveling 90 km/h then the measured speed would be 90 × cos(15) ≈ 87 km/h. The system doesn’t know the angle though, so it still divides its measurement by cos(25), which produces a result of approximately 96 km/h. Note that this is the minimum error, because the Metz report indicates that this model is susceptible to greater error. It is likely that my car was traveling far below the speed limit when it was clocked.

France is writing tickets and prosecuting for this! This guy had a similar problem, though he is French so he managed to win his case in court (though they still didn’t give his money back). My reading of the relevant documents leads me to believe that it is actually a punishable crime to use a radar device in a manner not conforming to the certification. If a criminal element exists in prosecutors’ offices or among speed camera operators, we should demand charges. If we did so, it would only be fair if we stripped them of all of their due process rights, eliminated the presumption of innocence, and charged them a fine up front before giving them a court date 1.5 years in the future.

court France photocop speeding

A really basic point that I try to emphasize here is the importance of strong principles. Principles are what drive good, rational people, who understand the dangers of living with criminals in their midst, to treat each crime with consistency, ethics, and unwavering fairness to the accused.

(Note: Europeans get really upset if you refer to minor traffic violations as crimes. Their governments have convinced them that these little things are something different, and therefore get fewer protections. In the US, the legal system also commonly makes a distinction, but in the English language we commonly do not. In this post, I use the term crime to mean “some behavior that society has decided to outlaw,” because using consistent definitions is an important basis for solid principles.)

Take speeding for example. Yes, driving too fast is dangerous. Yes, this affects others so it makes sense that regulations exist. Overall, I’m fine with the idea of having motor vehicle laws including speed limits, with various caveats. However, things are not so simple. A given speed limit set by the government may or may not be appropriate given the science. People are sometimes wrongly accused of things. People are wrongly accused of murder and people are wrongly accused of speeding. These things happen, and it is the job of the judicial system (and actually the police, in the first place) to minimize the chances of dealing out punishment to an innocent party. If you get a ticket, the judicial system exists (in its origins anyway) for your benefit.

Many people say, “but the system will break down if we allow every person a fair trial.” This is an extremely common response when talking to French people about photocop tickets, and it is an extremely short-sighted view. First, note that taking money from innocent people does nothing to prevent future violations, so the very problem that the law exists to address is completely unaffected. Second, note that gutting protections for the innocent financially benefits the very group of people gutting these protections. Yes, some people that are accused actually did the crime. Some of those crimes are actually a menace to society and I think we can mostly agree that the culprit should be punished. But if the list of infractions in a jurisdiction is so long that the jurisdiction cannot employ enough people to handle the burden on the court system, then not all of those laws are really necessary. The reason an unprosecutable number of traffic tickets are written is that the current laws are catching massive swaths of the population (and many of these people have reasonable defenses). If such a large percentage of drivers is ticketed for speeding, for example, then the current speed laws and enforcement are clearly not serving the will of the people, regardless of effectiveness.

A government simply should not be able to force a citizen to part with freedom or property without providing ample evidence that a crime occurred and that the accused is, in fact, the culprit. This is what it means to have principles. Most current governments (certainly that of France or most US jurisdictions) are not principled. Some of the actors in these systems naively believe that photo-enforcement, for example, is 100% correct. That’s cute (also wildly wrong), and individuals may think they are acting in a principled manner, but the system itself is really not interested in working for the people.

court France photocop speeding

One thing I’d like you to take away from the last post is where to place the blame. Yes, our society has many problems. We have systemic racism. We have profit motives by vendors of military equipment and private prison operators. We have a dysfunctional media. But, in the context of the last post, some blame also lies with anybody who blindly supports laws with only a superficial grasp of the consequences.

Laws are necessary for civilization. I don’t have radical libertarian beliefs, but irrationally supporting laws purely out of fear is a problem. As an example, if you support MADD and their prohibitionist, ineffective policy ideas, then you are to blame when poor people and minorities are disproportionately affected. You don’t get to stand with the protesters in Ferguson while at the same time supporting predatory speed enforcement. These types of things do disproportionately impact those who don’t have the education and money to fight for their rights. Or maybe you still support those laws because you have weighed the costs and benefits, but you don’t really get to have it both ways. You can’t take the side of the protesters in Ferguson and also support the massive framework of ineffective laws that leads to systemic bias.

Of course this isn’t everything. There are definitely racist cops out there. There are definitely problems that go way beyond broken taillight violations. But if everybody stopped supporting laws for minutia, then there would be less room for selective enforcement and prosecution of those laws.

Uncategorized

Compared to many events in the news (Ferguson, etc.) and many travesties that are not, the content on this site may seem trivial. I agree, to an extent. In my personal life I spend a lot of time reading and advocating for solutions to the bigger injustices. I haven’t mentioned the big news stories on here in part because I don’t see my quibbles as deserving equal footing. That said, I think the events I complain about (mostly related to motorist rights) and the big stories are often symptoms of similar problems in America’s system. In particular, I believe that two main things cause a lot of this.

Too many laws

The first is that far too many laws exist. When a problem exists, society rewards legislators who write token laws to give the illusion that they’ve “done something.” When a problem doesn’t exist, nobody (generally) lobbies for laws to be eliminated. What society really needs is well-thought out policy with well-understood objectives, in consultation with appropriate experts. Regulating for the sake of regulating results in a patchwork of laws that don’t really accomplish their intent but which allow cops and prosecutors to abuse those who don’t have the education or resources to stand up for themselves.

Take texting while driving for example: Most states already had laws about distracted driving; laws that cover a variety of activities if they impede your ability to safely operate your vehicle. Yet many are now passing laws to specifically prohibit texting. Violations of these laws are generally unenforceable and unprosecutable. A police officer doesn’t know what you are doing on your phone and a prosecutor can’t prove it. Of course this is partly because, from a technical standpoint, “texting” doesn’t mean anything. It’s all ones and zeros to the hardware. It also does not relate to safety, as hands-free systems have in some cases been shown to be equally unsafe. But these laws, like the broken taillight excuse, do give cops one more reason to stop somebody. That’s all they need. Generally if a cop makes a traffic stop in good faith, then he is free to look for other violations or even run a drug dog around the car. Not only is enforcement of these laws greater in minority neighborhoods, but poor people are less likely to have a hands-free kit and thus more likely to be in violation of this particular law. The former is not always due to overt racism, but also because if the police abuse the public in upscale neighborhoods, the policy will be changed. These are the people with the power in society. Poor neighborhoods can be abused with overzealous enforcement and nobody will notice—until the residents start setting cars on fire. A poor person is much less likely to have the education to understand his rights during the stop and the resulting court appearance. He is less likely to have a lawyer so he is less likely to argue a compelling case or make effective use of plea bargain. Compounding matters, a side effect of having all these laws is that the system is inaccessible to laymen. For simple traffic offenses, should I really need a lawyer to state my case?

Police work for us; they should also work with us

The second big-picture cause of our problems is that the police have taken an adversarial role. Instead of treating the community as partners, they act more like an occupying force. They drive tanks and carry grenade launchers. They literally have more gear than the police in North Korea. They nickel and dime the public, both for profit and to assert their power. Though crime is at record lows, police and prosecutors argue for exceptions to constitutional rights. It’s too inconvenient to get a warrant to search a car. It’s too inconvenient to allow a suspect to call a lawyer before submitting to a breathalyzer. We’ll never catch child molesters if we allow encryption. We’ll never stop terrorists if we can’t listen to every phone call. These arguments are ridiculous. The lack of rights affects me when I fight a photocop ticket and it affects poor people when they get a DUI and are forced to drive to work without a license. One is clearly a greater injustice, but they both stem from an underlying assumption that everybody is a criminal. I believe that the implementation and enforcement of laws should make the opposite assumption, that everybody is good, and then punish only those who are very clearly in violation of the principles that we’ve agreed upon as a society.

The system is broken

I’m very fortunate to be white. It’s easy to see how these policy and cultural problems disproportionately affect the less fortunate and the resulting racial unrest should come as no surprise. Being white and not poor means that I am lucky to have time to focus on these seemingly minor problems with the system when, for many, the system is broken.

Uncategorized

Several years ago I encountered a malfunctioning parking meter in Ames, Iowa. I forget the exact scenario, but basically I put a quarter in and it failed to register the additional time. I took note of the malfunctioning meter, moved my car to another spot, and contacted the Ames Police Department when I got a chance, to inquire about a refund. They initially told me that they couldn’t do it because they had no procedure in place for refunds. I kept asking for supervisors until I got to leave a message for the chief. When Chief Cychosz returned my call, I explained my story, and his words were “I tend to agree with you.” He had his secretary create a form for this purpose, and I was able to stop by the police station to get my refund. I imagine I am about the only person who uses the form, and I know on another later visit when I filled out my information I could see I was the only other entry on the list. But this isn’t the point. The point is having principles and accountability. If I pay for a service and don’t receive that service then you have an obligation to reimburse me. Even vending machine companies do this. Police departments often don’t, but Chief Cychosz seems to be an honest man who understands that this was the right thing to do.

Now fast forward to my interaction last month with the Columbus, Ohio police. I put a couple coins in the meter, and then one quarter was not registered. The meter was a fancy computerized one, so they certainly have the ability to balance the amount of money received against the amount of time given. The situation described above in Ames was much less high-tech so the department is forced to accept a person’s word regarding the malfunction. I reported the meter broken on the internet and inquired how to get my refund. I got no response. Then I called the department and got transferred around a bit. Ultimately I spoke to a man named Mike in the Parking Violations Division who said that they have no ability to give refunds and he indicated that everybody in Columbus would line up for them. I told him that other people can do whatever fraudulent activity they want but it has no bearing on the responsibility of an organization to reimburse people who do not get a promised product. I also told him that you can’t work anywhere and handle money and not have it counted at the end of the day and yet he expects me to believe that nobody double checks the amount of cash in each meter against the computer. I asked him who I needed to speak to about getting a refund policy put in place and the best he could do was refer me to the city’s 311 system. I have yet to hear back on that.

If a city gets to keep the spoils from malfunctions, what incentive is there to keep the meters properly repaired? At the end of the day, that’s the reason this policy is important. It isn’t my problem that it might be difficult to verify. An ethical department should have a procedure in place to pay out the rare person who reports such a loss. Further, a police department that thinks they are too important to respond to citizen inquiries might as well be disbanded.

Ohio

I used to have a car registered in Arizona. As a student, I was legally able to take my car around the country with me without necessarily being required to register in each subsequent state. This was convenient. It also had some other perks:

  • Arizona has no front license plate.
  • Arizona license plates aren’t tacky like, say, Ohio’s.
  • The driver’s license location must match the car registration. My AZ license doesn’t expire until I turn 65.
  • It’s a nearly-perfect way to avoid photo citations.

So, given these reasons, I had no good incentive to go through the trouble and expense of registering my car in Ohio and Iowa when I was just there briefly for school. The only catch is that Arizona has an emissions program. This is fine, except when the car is out of state at the time when it is due for a test, an exemption form must be completed. This form is one page with a spot at the bottom for a police officer’s signature (from whatever state you happen to be in).

Surprisingly, I encountered shadiness on this simple task of getting a signature. I was in Iowa for about four years and in only one or two of those years did the cop from the Ames Police Department actually look at the car. A couple of the officers just asked for my driver’s license and signed the form. The form is to verify that the car (not the driver!) is in another state. It asks questions about the VIN and plate number, for example. Signing the bottom of the form without looking at the actual car is fraud! I appreciate that this has no direct impact on me personally, but come on! It’s their job! I think they should do it properly because I have principles. Sometimes fraud benefits the driver. Sometimes it doesn’t.

In defense of the Ames PD, at least they were willing to sign the form. The Wichita police said they couldn’t because it was the highway patrol’s job. The Kansas highway patrolman was very nice and he pointed out that the form said specifically that any law enforcement officer was allowed to sign it.

bad cops Kansas

Another old story from my days in Ames, Iowa:

I was making a left turn out of a side road onto a more major (though very sparsely driven) divided road. A highway patrolman was coming from the left and I pulled out with an extremely large and safe amount of distance in front of him. For some reason that I haven’t determined, he whipped around behind me. He pulled me over and told me that my window tint was illegal, my license plate cover made it hard for him to read my rear plate, and he complained that I had no front plate. He said he wasn’t going to ask me to do anything about my tint since it is legal in the state in which my car is registered (Arizona); same thing for the missing front license plate. He said he wasn’t going to write me a ticket but he was suggesting that I remove the rear plate cover. Now I have a few thoughts on this sequence of events. First, I wonder why he flipped around in the first place since my windows aren’t all that dark and he surely couldn’t have seen my rear plate when I turned across his path. Second, I don’t think he would have a case on the window tint considering that it’s legal where the car is registered and it’s hard to imagine Iowa having a law that would basically prohibit visitors from Arizona (the commerce clause might allow the federal government to prevent such a law). As for the license plate cover, sure it’s illegal but it’s not coming off until big brother takes down his ticket cameras.

Now allow me to rant a bit about tint. We supposedly live in a free country yet a person can’t say to himself “You know, I don’t really like the heat from the sun and I don’t like it getting in my eyes so maybe I’ll darken the windows up a bit.” In Iowa the law apparently allows for absolutely no aftermarket tint on the front two windows. Where’s the freedom there? Some people might say that the law exists for the safety of cops. I say that’s bogus. First, anything over 50% tint is barely noticeable. Mine is 35% and you can see through my car with no problem. If I do it again, I’ll probably get the same but I’d be tempted to go to 20%. Second, if the police lock everybody up in prison cells, I’m sure the streets would be safer but that’s just how the tradeoff between freedom and safety goes. How the heck is allowing absolutely no tint a tradeoff of any sort? I probably wouldn’t be complaining if the law was more rational like perhaps 35% or 20%. I can understand that it’s dangerous for people to have windows so dark that they can’t see through them to drive. I also possibly could be sympathetic to the cop safety argument. But no tint at all? That’s the compromise that the legislature came up with? Never mind that factory tint is somehow legal. I can buy a car with dark tint but I can’t put it on myself. Where is the freedom if I can’t even make such basic decisions about my property?

(EDIT August 16, 2015: I found out last week that the officer lied to me about the Iowa tint laws. Some tint is in fact allowed.)

Now let me contemplate why I was even pulled over in the first place. The only thing I can think is that the officer saw my lack of a front license plate (AZ doesn’t have one) and flipped around after me only to discover that I was legal but he didn’t want his effort to be wasted so he found other things wrong. Otherwise he would have to be quite a tint-nazi to waste his time on suspicious tint, particularly since he may not have even been on the correct side of the law given my out-of-state registration.

Here is the real rant. I’ve often said that you can’t drive the number of miles I drive without being pulled over every couple years. That’s about how often I get pulled over and it’s rarely for a good reason. But then I got to thinking a bit deeper. My mom hasn’t been pulled over since the 70s, if I recall correctly. She doesn’t drive as much as I do but surely she has racked up enough miles to get pulled over a few times. She even drives vehicles with illegal tint sometimes. This isn’t that shocking, but the bottom line is that this is police profiling. A lady made a comment about this at a coffee shop one time and it was kind of a new way of thinking about these things. She said something along the lines of “I’m glad I’m not in your shoes because I know how cops target young kids.” Before that, I had never really realized that cops don’t harass everybody. A cop will gladly waste his time with a college kid because there is a statistically good chance that the person is drunk, has drugs, etc. If a cop sees my mom driving with illegal tint he’s not going to think twice because he knows that his chances of getting a real reward are low. In fact, he probably doesn’t even notice the illegal tint until he needs a reason to pull the person over. It’s all about the reward system. Cops aren’t rewarded for illegal tint citations but the system definitely rewards them for a DUI. And if there is no DUI but the person isn’t friendly then the cop can still go ahead and give that tint citation just to assert his authority and raise some funds. The problem is that these are basically illegal stops, yet cops do this every day. I can only assume that it’s way worse for minorities. What really angers me is when it’s the same people who say “well if you did the crime then you deserve to get pulled over” that are also against profiling.

I want to be able to wake up in the morning, get in the car, and make it to my destination without being harassed by police if there aren’t any major foul-ups along the way. A lot of these stupid laws are on the books not because of a real danger but because cops want more reasons to stop people. The legislators get to act like they are doing something because the average person doesn’t see any problem with many of these laws in isolation. It’s when they are used together as part of an enforcement regime that they become a problem. We need to repeal many of these laws to return to a system in which police officers stop people because they did something that was actually unsafe. Really, in an ideal system, we would be able to have 100% enforcement, but that wouldn’t currently be sustainable. If every driver, regardless of age, sex, or political connections, were ticketed every time that a cop observed a violation of one of the thousands of laws on the books, the laws would go away rather quickly. This is a good indicator that we are currently burdened with a bunch of bad laws.

bad cops Iowa

Another cleaned-up story from an old blog:

Not long after my interactions with Officer Adrienne Johnson of the Ames Police Department, I heard that a female police officer came to the neighbor’s house (two doors down) looking for my roommate. She apparently had the wrong address and she told the neighbors the reason for her visit (which was nothing big, but did involve investigation of a crime). This is unacceptable. First, the houses are clearly numbered so care should have been taken to go to the correct one. Second, it was pretty dishonorable to tell somebody that she wanted to question their neighbor regarding a crime. It was none of their business and it is bordering on slander. Once she determined that she had the wrong house, she should have moved on. No more discussion was necessary.

We confirmed a week later that the visitor was Officer Johnson. Apparently she also left a message for my roommate. He returned the call (twice), but she never bothered to call back. Putting all of the above aside, what type of unprofessional police department doesn’t return their phone calls?

bad cops Iowa

Here is a video of my favorite deputy from the Clark County Sheriff’s Office (Ohio), Brian Melchi.

[YouTube video now private]

The video was shot from a drone flying over a crash site. Deputy Brian Melchi came over to the pilot and claimed to have told him to stop flying because a helicopter was coming in. The drone was down at this time but the man challenged Melchi’s claims, saying nobody told him about the helicopter. Deputy Melchi continued to talk over the man and eventually arrested him for exercising his right to free speech. After the arrest, some people can be heard in the background saying that they also didn’t believe that Melchi had asked the man to land previously. Because this video conflicts with the fabricated report given by Deputy Melchi, the felony charges were eventually dismissed.

Once Deputy Melchi’s claims were shown to be inaccurate, we can assume the man was arrested simply for exercising his 1st amendment right to speak to a cop and possibly because cops don’t like being filmed. I would like to see a lawsuit, but at least we can share this story to bring the needed embarrassment to the Clark County Sheriff’s Office and Brian Melchi, who is just too arrogant to protect and serve.

bad cops Ohio