California Highway Patrol Encounters - Good Advice

How To Keep Your Encounters With Law Enforcement Infrequent And (Relatively) Painless

Steven Foster, 45, was an officer with the California Highway Patrol from 1982 until 1992 and now teaches art at Saddleback High School in Santa Ana, Calif. A lifelong car guy, he currently owns a Ferrari 330GTC, Bullitt Mustang, Dodge Shelby Charger GLH-S, '69 Plymouth Road Runner, '71 Buick Gran Sport 455, a road racing Doge Dart, a '67 Porsche 911S vintage racer and a supercharged BMW 2002. He also does extraordinary automotive watercolors that are on display at his Web site, www.swbstudios.com

I lived for the pursuits. My supervisors all knew if I heard a pursuit coming anywhere near my area, I was going to get into it and I wanted my Mustang to be the primary unit. I've driven on race tracks, but in a pursuit, the intensity and adrenaline rush has got to be at least twice what it is on a track. There's so much more going on, so much more at stake in a pursuit, and it's vastly more dangerous.

I loved being a member of the California Highway Patrol and if I hadn't stepped in a pothole and snapped an ankle while running, I'd probably still be working out of the Westminster office ranging over the Southern California freeways around Long Beach, Seal Beach, Huntington Beach and Fountain Valley. I never did anything that would take me out of the field or out of the action-never sought promotion or looked for a desk job. Eleven years into my productive, happy and involuntary retirement, I still miss it.

If you're expecting me to spill about the top-secret tactics and unfair tricks traffic officers use to ensnare innocent motorists, forget it. First, because the cops don't need to be sneaky as long as there are drivers out there dumb enough to pass a clearly marked CHP Crown Vic that's doing the speed limit. And second, because there aren't that many "innocent motorists." Everyone speeds.

About the only tactics we used were tracking a speeder in his blind spot, hiding in front of large trucks so a speeder won't see us until he's past us, and observing traffic from on-ramps. Otherwise, all we're looking for is something anomalous in traffic. A lot of brake lights usually mean someone is behaving so poorly other drivers are slowing down to avoid hitting him. If someone is slaloming through traffic, that's going to get some attention, particularly if he's courteous enough to signal before every lane change. Ride someone's bumper and that's going to be noticed, too.

Most of the drivers a traffic officer stops are doing something so blatantly illegal and flagrantly obvious, he doesn't have a choice except to stop them. When I was with the CHP, it used very little radar, but there's a lot more radar in California today and there's always been a lot of radar in the rest of the country. There's nothing particularly clever about using radar. If drivers put up a big number on your radar, you stop them.

That doesn't mean there aren't some simple things you can do to minimize the chances of getting a ticket. If you do something that's ticketable and you get a ticket, don't whine.

Because police agencies have to recruit from the human population, there's no one single profile of a cop. I was a car guy long before I joined the CHP and grew up doing burnouts in my parents' driveway in their '55 Chevy before I had my license. And yeah, I even did a little street racing. In fact, while I was a CHP officer, I owned a Ferrari 250 GT and have another Ferrari now.

There are 100 area offices in the CHP and they're all fully staffed with people, some of whom are like me and others who are totally different than me. There are cops who will let you go with a warning for 20 over the speed limit as long as you're a nice guy, and there are others who carry around rulers so they can write you up if your fog lights are a fraction of an inch too low. Fortunately, most of the officers I've known have been reasonable rather than anal jackasses.

Personally, I was more amenable to giving a guy a warning if he was doing 75 or 80 mph in light traffic than someone who was doing 60 mph in heavy 50-mph traffic on three bald tires. Every officer has a lot of discretion when it comes to his enforcement decisions inside the CHP. I was always looking for the big fish. What's the point of stopping a guy doing 70 in a 65?

When speeds get up into triple digits, however, that discretion narrows considerably. Currently, in the California Vehicle Code (Section 22348b) speeding over 100 mph can be punished on the first offense with up to a $500 fine and up to a 30-day license suspension. It also carries with it two points toward a license suspension, just like a DUI or participation in a speed contest (four points within a year, six points in two years or eight points in three years nets a license suspension or revocation).

We never had any ticket quotas per se, but the supervisors were aware of every officer's productivity. If you were writing 20 tickets a month while most of the other officers in your office were writing 100, that might attract attention. Then again, if you wrote only 20 tickets but helped a particularly large number of stranded motorists get home safely, busted a couple of drunk drivers (which take a long time to transport and book) and delivered quadruplets in the back of your cruiser, they considered those compensating circumstances.

Still, if it was the end of the month and my productivity was low, well, it was only human nature to try and make up the shortfall. I think a lot fewer warnings and a lot more tickets are given out at the end of the month.

Before I retired from active duty, the CHP was one of the most professional organizations of any kind anywhere in the world. There's no reason to think that has changed.

Getting a drunk off the freeway is about as satisfying as anything a CHP officer does. One time my partner and I were on the graveyard shift and saw one drunk enter the freeway going the wrong way. Drunks who perform this particular stunt almost never realize they're going the wrong way on the freeway, despite the fact that all the Botts dots light up red along the ground and those are headlights headed straight at them.

We got on the freeway and paralleled the drunk, flashing our lights and yelling at him over the P.A. to stop. But it didn't work and he eventually ran straight into a SAAB. I never met an officer who was willing to cut drunks any slack at all.

Cops have almost all the advantages in a pursuit. While a driver might have a car that's faster and better handling than whatever the cop is driving, the cop has training, a lot of friends on the other end of his radio and he knows he isn't going to jail at the end of the pursuit.

Still, sometimes, very rarely, people get away. Superbikes are tough to catch. One time, a turbocharged Z-car passed us doing about 125 while we were parked on the side of the road. By the time we got in our car and went after him, he was already long gone. And one time my partner and I were just approaching a Lamborghini Miura to get a better look at it and that was enough to get the driver running.

There's no way the Dodge Diplomat we were in could keep up with that Lambo. But that wasn't enough for the driver, who would build up a lead and then slow to almost a stop so we could catch up. Then, once we were in sight, he'd stick his hand out and motion us to try to catch him. It was pretty arrogant on his part, but he did, in fact, lose us.

That's not the sort of pursuit you just let die. We went through the parking lots of all the apartment buildings in that area and there, under a cover and still warm, was that Miura. We found out who owned it and knocked on his door, only to find out he thought the car was at his mechanic's shop being tuned. I don't think charges were ever pressed against that mechanic.

Ultimately, cops are people, too. Remember that when you're dealing them. Treat them as well as you could ever hope to be treated and you'll be better off in the long run.

Tips To Keep The Cops AwayChances are you'll be stopped by a police officer soon. But that doesn't mean you ought to be asking for it.

1. Don't do anything illegal.

2. Swerving in and out of traffic is going to get you noticed. Find a lane and stick to it.

3. You might think twice about that bright green paint. If a car is easy to see and it's doing something stupid, it's that much easier to find.

4. Bumper stickers don't do you any good. Why would you want a sticker saying "Don't flip me off, I'm reloading" on your car anyway? Why do it? They just attract attention or put the cop in a bad mood when he stops you. I don't even put political stickers on my car. There are cops of virtually every political stripe out there.

5. If you're causing other people on the roadway to do something because of your actions, like brake or swerve, you're going to get looked at for sure.

6. Keep a low profile on the car. If you're going to put a big engine in it, don't announce it to the world. My friend's '94 Civic looks completely stock but has a custom-built engine and can probably run 11s. He never gets hassled. Meanwhile, there's a kid at the school where I now teach who has a mango orange Civic that just begs to be inspected. He gets stopped all the time.

Tips To Keep The Cops Happy When They Stop YouIf they go through the hassle of stopping you, many cops are automatically going to write you up no matter what. But some traffic officers will issue warnings rather than tickets if the offense isn't too egregious and the driver he has stopped is courteous and considerate.

1. When you get lit up, you don't need to immediately swerve off the road. Safely move over to the right and maybe hold up your hand to acknowledge that you're aware of the officer. Pull off as far as you physically can while leaving the officer enough room to approach the car from which ever side he prefers. Make things as comfortable as you can for him.

2. After you've pulled over, roll both front windows down and, if it's dark, turn your interior light on and turn the other lights off. Bad stuff happens when a cop doesn't know what's going on.

3. Turn the car off and keep both hands on the wheel in plain view. Let him know where your hands are and he's feeling good.

4. Just do what he wants. Don't argue, don't challenge and don't provoke. If you want to fight the ticket, fight it in court. Right now you want a happy officer who likes you so much, he won't write you up at all.

5. I don't recommend you volunteer a lot of information, but everything you say should be the truth. If he catches you in a lie or thinks you're treating him like he's an idiot, you're doomed.

6. Don't make any quick or furtive movements. I almost shot a jeweler in a GTI who was getting his registration out of the glove compartment where it sat-right under his gun. He had a permit for the gun, but I didn't know that or what his intentions were, and for a moment (a scary moment) I thought I might shoot him. Fortunately, I hesitated long enough for him to understand that I was ordering him to drop the weapon and he complied. If you have a weapon in your car, make sure that's the first thing you tell any officer who stops you.

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