Politeness and Police Discretion: Your Behaviour Roadside Counts

Police officers in British Columbia have significant obligations when they come across someone who appears to have committed an offence, but generally speaking they have broad discretion in how to proceed when it comes to traffic offences. When it comes to police discretion in issuing traffic tickets, it’s important to keep in mind that the officer giving you the ticket has a great deal of personal authority. Consequently, how you behave after the fact can have major consequences for the outcome of your case.

Right or wrong, the cop who pulls you over for a Motor Vehicle Act offence is likely to issue you a ticket. Imagine for a moment that your job is to be a traffic officer.

It’s no fun being a cop

Firstly, as a traffic cop you’re working shift work which is unpleasant for anyone. Secondly, you’re probably working 10 to 12 hour days. “Okay,” you say, “12 hours as a cop is 7 hours on the road, 4 hours doing paperwork and 1 hour eating doughnuts.” Still, it’s a long day, paperwork is time-consuming and I am told no fun at all, and for 7 hours you need to deal with angry people. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which a driver is happy to be receiving a ticket or having their vehicle towed. And besides, for very doughnut you eat as a cop you need to suffer through 3 cop-eats-a-doughnut jokes. 

On top of all that you need to sit in a police cruiser, wear an uncomfortable uniform, lug around a gun that hurts your hip and that you’re hoping you’ll never need to use, and watch people drive by on their way to do something fun. Being a cop can be a drag. You know what makes it worse? Jerks.

Types of Jerks Cops Deal With

Jerks fall into a few categories. There are people who beg the officer not to punish them by giving a ticket. I have watched hundreds of police in-car camera recordings where the person ticketed is incessantly begging the officer not to do it. It doesn’t help, and it ends up just making you look guilty and really unsympathetic if the video is ever played in court. Judges, prosecutors, and adjudicators all know that police are often just doing their jobs. You begging only makes the police officer look better.

There are people who insult or make nasty comments. This really never goes well. Not only do you only end up painting yourself in a terrible light, but you end up pissing off the officer. Traffic officers deal with thousands of drivers every year. If you’re a rude and nasty person they are more likely to remember, and remember you for the wrong reasons. Just look at this guy, who calls the cop a “fucking dickhead,” a “scumbag,” a robot and a vulture. Impressive is that this officer keeps his cool throughout, endures the insults, and explains that he is just doing his job. Heck, this officer even answers the driver’s questions and explains the law in a polite and thoughtful manner.

There are people who lie. This also does not end well. Again, lying about something (particularly when it is caught on camera or witnessed by third parties just makes you look guilty.

This is all normal behaviour at the roadside — I’m not knocking people for being upset when they get a ticket. I’m only trying to explain how not being a jerk can assist when it comes to police discretion. If you want to yell at a police officer and call him a Robot Vulture then go right ahead, but don’t complain when he does not want to take much sympathy on you down the road at your ticket dispute hearing.

Police discretion

You see, on a standard Violation Ticket in BC there is space to record up to three possible infractions. Most people who are pulled over have committed at least two infractions. Even in simple speeding cases, I’ve seen tickets where the officers managed to come up with two more offences under the Motor Vehicle Act when the driver acted like a jerk. Much comes down to officer discretion. If you behave like a jerk, expect to get a ticket full up with Motor Vehicle Act offences. Police have a term for this: “three-boxing.” And if you’re especially unlucky, you’ll be “six-boxed” which means you get two tickets with three allegations.

In fairness, I should point out that this also happens to perfectly pleasant people when the officer is the jerk. But that’s another blog post.
Often, by not being a jerk you can often reduce the damage when you’ve been pulled over by a BC traffic cop. So what’s the best way to behave when you’re been pulled over? How can you not be seen as a jerk?    

Creepy friendliness is as bad as being a jerk. Maybe worse. Cops don’t expect you to be extra friendly. They know you’re angry because you’re getting a ticket and so being extra friendly is just weird. Also, it makes it look like you have a few pounds of cocaine in your trunk which is always a bad thing. So cut the chit chat. Being super friendly isn’t going to win you brownie points. Furthermore, chit chat can get you into a world of trouble. All of a sudden you’re giving an officer an opportunity to smell that Caesar you had with your brunch, or to get you to admit to some other offence. This may surprise you, but many traffic officers are given drug investigation training so they can use routine traffic stops to weed out (no pun intended) dial-a-dopers.

Begging, crying and negotiating just makes you look pathetic. It also makes you memorable. They’ll tell their cop friends all about your foolish behaviour as they enjoy a doughnut at the end of their shift. They’ll also tell their cop friends that its the first time they wrote a ticket for speeding and opening a door while unsafe. If you spend as much time reading the Motor Vehicle Act as traffic cops or I do, you’ll come up with a whole lot of fun new offences.

Turning Police Discretion in Your Favour

Chances are that if you’ve been pulled over for something, you’re getting a ticket. You can’t change that. But what happens to you once you’ve been pulled over can have a lot to do with how you behave. If you want the power of police discretion in issuing tickets to work in your favour, you simply need to be polite. This can mean the difference between one ticket or three, an impounded car or not, and the difference between a higher fine and a lower fine.

Yes, tactful politeness goes a long way even with the police. “Yes officer, I understand” is much more effective than “my taxes paid for that uniform.” Especially since the uniform is uncomfortable, and more revenue from tax dollars might buy a better uniform. Three tickets it is!

I strongly encourage my clients to be polite to the police at all times. This doesn’t mean that you should provide any more information than necessary. Traffic cops don’t want to hear your life story, how you made a “big mistake” or how you think they must be great people because they’re cops. They also don’t want to hear about how you respect them. What they want to do is deal with you quickly and be on their way. Which is completely reasonable. “I understand” and “Thank you” when you are given a ticket go a lot farther than anything else.

And please, please, don’t tell them your lawyer will see them in court. I will. I will see them in court. But I don’t want them to be on notice that I’m coming. If you think this is not a damaging threat, you are wrong. Chances are I will see the officer in traffic court some time before your traffic ticket dispute. And chances are he will say something like “Oh, I see we have a trial coming up for Mr. HappyPants in November. I’m getting prepared already.” Don’t be Mr. HappyPants.

Quiet, Friendly People Come Out On Top

Myself and the other lawyers in my office defend people in traffic court every week. One thing that always comes out in our discussions with police officers is that they remember the people who are jerks. When it comes time to testify, they have a much clearer recollection for the court of the event because it remains stuck in their head.

What happens when it comes to people who were quiet, not chatty and otherwise friendly? Officers are less likely to feel motivated to prosecute and even if there is a trial in traffic court, they will often have forgotten the details which is often the key to an acquittal. Don’t be a jerk, and you put me in a better position to help you succeed in your traffic ticket case.

11 thoughts on “Politeness and Police Discretion: Your Behaviour Roadside Counts”

  1. It’s always wise to remember that there is a legal imbalance of power when dealing with police, and at the time it doesn’t matter if they’re right or wrong; they need to believe you respect them.

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