Driving Miss Crazy
December 10, 2010 7:06 PM   Subscribe

When you're stopped for a traffic violation, how much of your driving record do the police see on their computer?

I got a ticket this afternoon for an unsafe lane change. After the cop asked to see my license and registration, he asked me two questions:

COP: "When was the last time you were arrested?"
ME: "I've never been arrested."
COP: "Good answer."

and then,

COP: "What's your driving record going to look like when I pull it up?"
ME: "It should be pretty clean."

When I signed for ticket, he asked if I had any questions. "Why did you ask if I'd been arrested?" I asked him.

"Honesty goes a long way with me." he replied.

With regards to the question about my record, I'm wondering if I should have answered differently. I answered truthfully--to the best of my knowledge, there's nothing on my record within the past ten years.

But my complete driving record is not spotless--I had a series of traffic tickets and a suspension, but that was over twenty years ago. For the past ten years I've been a safe and careful driver and the two times I've been stopped, the cops have let me go with warnings.

1. I did get a ticket-by-camera (failure to stop at a stop sign) about two months ago, but I'm going to traffic school for that, so would that show up on my record?

2. How much of my driving record do cops see on the computer?

3. Why did the cop ask me about my record?

4. Did the cop think I was lying about my driving record?

5. Should I have answered that question differently?
posted by Ann Onymous to Law & Government (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
It depends to some degree on how their car is equipped, but increasingly, they'll see your whole criminal record. And your record is indeed pretty clean, so your answer was fine. In any case, he mostly just wants to hear you talk long enough to decide if he has probable cause to suspect that you're intoxicated.
posted by nicwolff at 7:49 PM on December 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

Sample of one here, but when I was pulled over about two years ago in New York by a State Trooper, when he came back with my ticket, before he handed it to me, he asked me when the last time I was in Milton. The only time I was in Milton is when I got pulled over and went to court to fight it. (Reduced charge and reduced fine was the outcome.) So he knew I had gotten a ticket in that jurisdiction. My response to his question was, "You tell me." He just smiled, wished me a nice day and handed me the ticket. My guess is that, depending on the state, he has a list of your convictions for moving violations. Or, he may have a list of only those that are still counting towards points on your license.

I think he asked about your record to establish the beginning of his court case. If you give an incorrect answer, he will impugn your credibility with your statement. I do not think he thought you were lying. As for did you give a correct answer, that is subjective, but I think you did even knowing your record. There are some pretty serious fuck up drivers with really bad records that are nowhere near what you have.

As for how to answer the questions, I now simply shrug my shoulders so there is no verbal response on the record, or I give a vague response such as, "You be the judge of that" or if he is being particularly hostile, I tell him that "I do not wish to make a statement at this time." In NY, whatever you say to the officer is written on the back of the ticket and is admissible to be careful not to incriminate yourself.

With the incident mentioned above, when the officer asked how fast I thought I was going, I asked him what he had clocked me at. He said 80 in a 65. Only then did I tell him I thought I was doing 72. I figured I was not going to drive back to Syracuse to fight the ticket in person, but I would have a conflicting statement that were I found guilty of 72 would cost me a lot less than 80 in both points and dollars. I plead not guilty to the ticket and received a notice about my appearance and a phone number for the local ADA. I called the DA's office and asked for the procedures to see the records for the maintenance of the radar gun, when it was last calibrated, when the tuning forks were checked that calibrate the calibrator and for a record of all cars pulled over that day. She replied with a willingness to negotiate. I ended up agreeing to a charge that was even less expensive than the 72 mph would have been.

My point is that I do not believe that an officer will let me off with a warning . I simply am not the type to get that. So my responses are designed to mitigate any damage.

Having said all that, I have one more anecdote. A friend of mine was dealing with a DUI. It was between his arrest and court date. His license had been stamped with restricted on it. He was driving within those restrictions but got pulled over for something like you did, a bs improper lane change. No signal. When the officer asked him why his license said restricted, before he ran the plates and DL#, my friend told him he had a pending DUI. The officer said to him, "Mister LastName, you have enough problems. Please use your signal when changing lanes. Have a good night." and handed him back his license with no ticket. You just never know what to expect.
posted by AugustWest at 7:52 PM on December 10, 2010 [11 favorites]

1) ticket-by-camera deals are often worked as a "civil fine" and not placed on your driving record, because they're not tickets issued by a real officer.

2) in general, any simple traffic citatations older than 3 years shouldn't matter much to anyone, and I can't imagine they'd ever show up. Your insurance company doesn't even take them into account. It may very by department, but generally the emphasis is on outstanding wants and warrants - things cops need to know to access whether to use greater caution or to haul you in on warrants unrelated to the present stop. My guess is that a ticket that is no longer outstanding and squared away that you got somewhere else probably doesn't show up. Based on something an officer said to me regarding a drunk who had run into me, I think my local PD can see history on traffic stops LOCALLY, even if they only resulted in warnings.

3) Unknown, esp. since you say you haven't had tickets lately and he gave you one anyway. He apparently had his mind made up when he stopped you, which is fair enough, but makes me wonder (when I've been on the receiving end of this, which thankfully was a while ago) why the need for the power trip, if that's what it was. If one has a badge, a gun, and a ticket book, it seems the balance of power in the situation is already clear.

I do NOT trust his answer about admiring honesty. If you don't mind my asking, do you feel he gave you a break on any of it? Do you think he could have also cited you for speeding, or reckless driving, for example?

4) I doubt it. Again, some cops (not all) are sort of assclowns who like to ask "Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moon light?" kinda questions. Your guy kinda sounds like it with both questions.

5) One answer: Don't talk to the police

My own, somewhat less extreme views:
- never forget that the police officer is a potential legal adversary.
- keep your answers short and to the point. Closed-end answers. Do not open up new areas of discussion, and if you're not sure, don't guess, say "I don't know." And don't forget that you don't have to incriminate yourself. It's not rude to say "I don't know," when he asks why you think he stopped you, for example, even if you're pretty sure it has something to do with the fact that you were speeding.
- I don't think you did badly with your answers, but I think fair answers to both questions could have been "why do you ask?"
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:01 PM on December 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

It depends to some degree on how their car is equipped, but increasingly, they'll see your whole criminal record.

In NYS this is 100% incorrect. Not only will the officer not see your record of convictions for vehicle & traffic law offenses there is no chance the officer can access your criminal history records. The information is not available on the MDT's in the cars and to access such information you need to have made a misdemeanor or felony arrest (an arrest for a violation is not sufficient to run a criminal history check) or conducting an investigation and have documented incident report and arrest #'s to enter into the database. It is not an easily done thing to access a persons criminal history.

but when I was pulled over about two years ago in New York by a State Trooper, when he came back with my ticket, before he handed it to me, he asked me when the last time I was in Milton. The only time I was in Milton is when I got pulled over and went to court to fight it. (Reduced charge and reduced fine was the outcome.) So he knew I had gotten a ticket in that jurisdiction.

There was probably what is known as an "associated hit" on a portion of your name and there may have been a warrant on that person for failure to appear out of Milton. He was asking to see how you responded, and since you did not appear to be hiding anything, and b/c your info was different, yeah, he sent you on your way.
posted by nautical-by-nature at 8:11 PM on December 10, 2010

to tag onto nicwolff's comment a bit, that's one reason I haven't given cops the total stonewall approach - to try to be stone silent could invite further troubles, and I've gotten warnings instead of tickets at least twice because, I feel, I engaged with the officer about what I saw or thought versus what they saw. Once, it was a case where the light was yellow, and I successfully explained that the intersection was a very long one (crossed 5 lines of traffic in a broad arch), and therefore the light where she was waiting may have been green when she saw me coming the other way. The other time, I frankly deserved a ticket, but I (honestly) told the officer that I had failed to understand exactly where a construction zone had started, and he gave me a break, probably because I was under the regular speed limit.

However, I'm always aware that it's playing with fire, and oddly enough I've gotten warnings from cops who were assholes and I've gotten tickets from cops who were just as nice as they could be about it. I think departments mostly tie their hands about how much discretion they have and under what circumstances they can use it; never kid yourself you can "charm" your way out of a ticket.
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:16 PM on December 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

This will depend entirely on the state, but in Arizona, they'll only see warrant status or stolen vehicle status in a typical run.

A fun anecdote:

I was driving up north to our family's house up there. I've done the drive a lot. It's windy, mountainous, and a 65, apparently. I got pulled over on my way up.

Cop: Do you know how fast you were going?
Me: 78, thereabouts?
Cop: *blink* Do you know what the speed limit is?
Me: 75!
Cop: It's 65. I had you at 76.
Me: Damn, I really thought it was 75 here.
Cop: Nope.


The very next day, on my way back down, bam, pulled over again. Now, I'm really hoping this isn't the same cop.

Cop: Do you know what the speed limit is here?

It should be said here, that I always have proper procedure down. Interior lights on, both windows down, license, registration, proof of insurance ready, hands fully extended at 10 and 2 on the wheel. Immediately presenting that not only are you no threat, but that you wanted to go out of your way to demonstrate this fact will go a long way.

Me: 75!
Cop: How fast do you think you were going?
Me: 78!
Cop: I clocked you at 81. It's a 65 here.
Me: Shit, wow. I didn't think I was going that fast but I'll defer to your judgment and the radar gun there, officer. If that's what the gun says, that's what it was.
Cop: When was the last time you did traffic school (you can do this once every two years in AZ, in lieu of a report to your insurance)
Me: Damn, right around 19 months or so, I think
Cop: About the best I can do for you is write this up as a 75+ (this lowers the tier of penalty I fall into)
Me: I really appreciate that, and I totally understand.

At this point, the cop starts to walk away. He stops before he returns to his car and comes back.

Cop: Sir, did you have your seatbelt on when I pulled you over?

I did, in fact, but I had taken it off to get the license out of my wallet, before he got up to me. I also have illegally dark tint on my back windows, so imagine how thrilled I am as the cop says:

I was trying to see before I came up when I first pulled you over, but your windows are quite dark.

Me: Of course, officer, just pulled it off to get the wallet out. I'm not stupid enough to drive without my seatbelt!

Cop: Well, that may well be, but here's the deal. I'm going to need to write you a ticket for the seat belt...

Me: I swear I had it...

Cop: Hold up. I'm going to write you a ticket for the seat belt. It's a $35 ticket, isn't reported. In addition, I'll give you a warning on the speed. Just keep it down.

Me: *in wonderment* Thank you SO much, etc, etc.

The moral of the story is, back-to-back highway officers didn't know they had warned me the night before.

The second moral of the story is that a few visual and verbal cues will go so much further with an officer than you can ever imagine. Everyone is arguing and fighting and swearing up and down that they haven't been speeding, when nine times out of ten, the cop bagged you for 11+ over the limit because that's what showed on the gun.

When you present them with kindness, appreciation for their job, and deferment to their expertise, it's such a departure from the norm that you'll have a greater chance of, in my particular case, finding a cop who schemes to invent a way to let you off the hook. If for no other reason than that he gets to demonstrate his power, and he'd prefer to do it this way rather than the defensive, angry way that arguing encourages.

I was speeding. This wasn't going to go well for me. I've done the court thing. Being kind, understanding, and appreciative of what they do will catch way more breaks than barking at an officer or clamming up.
posted by disillusioned at 4:40 AM on December 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

disillusioned, I had the very same "Were you wearing your seatbelt? I could just write you up for a seatbelt violation..." conversation with a cop a few years back. I thought about it and decided that, nope, I'd been wearing my belt and I'd take my lumps for speeding. The cop shook his head sadly, walked back to his car, and after a few minutes, came back and said, "Eh, just go. Drive safe, okay?"

I think I get pulled over by lazy cops.
posted by verb at 6:28 AM on December 11, 2010

I would also say that answering honestly is a good course of action. Not only for reasons of personal ethics, but I have also received significant leniency a couple of times by not taking the stonewall approach. I was pulled over recently in Connecticut for talking on my cell phone while driving (didn't know it was illegal there). While pulled over, the officer discovered via his resources that my car, which I had owned for just a handful of months, had never been registered to me. I had registered it, but after a lot of homework it turned out there was a paperwork error between my dealer and the state, and it never went through at the state level. I was definitely confused and shocked and all "But this is MY CAR, I bought it!" and he was definitely doing due diligence. To him, this looked like a stolen car, plain and simple. The last registration was to some dude in New York State. The cop had the right to (a) impound the car and (b) arrest me, and did neither. He offered to have it towed to a location of my choice, took my plates, and let me go with a ticket for unauthorized use and a mandatory court appearance. In the end, I solved the registration mystery, brought the paperwork to court, and didn't have to pay any penalty - not even for the cellphone ticket, which I WAS actually liable for.

I have a feeling that this situation would not have gone so well if I were more closed-mouthed and "prove it" about what he was able to see on his monitor. In fact, he had some pretty important information I didn't have, and by being genuine, and also not indicating that I had anything else to hide, I was able to at least keep track of my car and not spend any time in jail.

Finally, I think it sucks to get pulled over for speeding, but on the other hand, it's a decision within our control and if I'm guilty, I'm guilty. The two times I've gotten a big-ticket speeding citation, I've definitely used all the usual methods of getting the fee reduced, like showing up in court and taking the negotiation they offer, but I don't fundamentally have a problem with paying a fine for a violation I knowingly did.

I agree that they are using a lot of the conversation they have with you as exploratory - are you impaired? Are you guilty? Is your partner in the car cool, or keeping you hostage? I mean, they come across all kinds of things. The other thing is that you never know if they are looking for someone specific and think you might be them. I think honesty is the best policy. We all meet an asshole cop, but they do have a lot of ways to make your life miserable if they perceive you as oppositional. Your demeanor is one the things you can control to increase the likelihood of a positive outcome of the interaction.
posted by Miko at 9:30 AM on December 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, forgot -- that experience in Connecticut did make we wonder what the heck kinds of information police have access to in their cars. (I had a lot of time to wonder about things as I sat by the side of the road). I just remembered that at that time I said to myself "I should totally ask this in AskMe: what kinds of information do the police see in their cars?" So I would also love to hear more about what is available to them.

It also occurs to me that besides the systems in their cars, they must be able to reach dispatchers and stuff at the station - do those people ever look stuff up for them?
posted by Miko at 9:33 AM on December 11, 2010

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