Last night was one of the strangest experiences I’ve had since I relocated to the Seattle area a decade ago. I had been working late, and was headed home after 10pm. Behind me, I saw the view everyone hopes not to see while driving: a police cruiser with the lights flashing. While looking for an appropriate spot to pull over, I glanced down at the speedometer—I was going exactly 1mph under the posted limit. This is going to be a long post, so I’ll put the officer’s statements in blue, and my own in red to make it easier to read. Obviously, this is personal recollection—so I’m sure it’s not 100% accurate.
The process started normally enough—the officer asked me “do you know why I pulled you over?”
“Honestly, I don’t, officer—I was going under the posted speed limit, and came to a full stop at the one stop sign between here and my office. What can I do for you?” My tone was polite and respectful—which is always the correct tone to take with a police officer—they’ve got a tough job to do, and they deserve our respect for risking their lives in the line of duty every day. He asked for my license, registration, and proof of insurance, which I provided promptly. All are (obviously) current.
The officer proceeded to pepper me with routine questions—where was I headed? (Home.) Where was I coming from? (The office.) Why was I working so late? (Typical fires at work.) However, it kept going longer than normal, and he got to a point where he was asking the same questions multiple times in slightly different ways, obviously looking for inconsistencies in my responses.
When there was a break in the conversation, I asked him the reason for the stop. He said “We’ll get to that—I’ll be right back.” He went back to his car for what seemed like forever—I assumed he was running my license, and probably writing out a ticket for SOMETHING, though I knew not what.
When he finally got back, he started asking the same questions before he finally got to a new one:
“You mind if I take a look in the trunk?”
I take my rights very seriously. I also consider it the obligation of every citizen to understand and protect his or her rights. In order to search your person or your vehicle without a warrant, an officer requires either your consent or Probable Cause. However, just searching in the hopes of finding something is not within their authority—it’s a gross invasion of privacy and a violation of one’s Constitutional protection against Unlawful Search and Seizure. I drive a fairly nice car, and am relatively young, but I was coming home from Microsoft in a button down shirt—it’s not like I’m Nikko from Grand Theft Auto here. And not much is “going down” on the “mean streets of Redmond, WA.”
I replied as politely and diplomatically as I could, “I do not consent to a search, and I’m curious as to the reason for the stop.”
He said that he “just wanted to ask me a few questions” and basically evaded the question about why he pulled me over. He then started asking predictable and completely understandable questions like “what’s in the trunk that you don’t want me to see?” and “if you’ve got nothing to hide, why not let me take a quick peek?”
I explained that there was nothing in the trunk but a small tool/hazard kit—which was completely true. (The trunk in my car is tiny and useless because of the space taken up by the retractable hardtop.) However, without an explanation for why I was pulled over and why he wanted to look in the trunk, I did not feel that the search was warranted.
He indicated that this was a private road, for residents only—and the residents didn’t like Microsoft employee’s using it as an arterial route, and that’s why there are speed bumps.
I said “Really? I must have missed the sign that indicates this—could you tell me where the sign is so that I can let my colleagues know? If it’s not posted, given that it’s a numbered street within the city limits I have to assume that it’s a public road.”
He started getting visibly agitated, and even crossing the line to mildly unprofessional, which is something I’ve never seen in a police officer before. “Slow down, there, counselor. Save the legal jargon for the judge.” He reiterated that if there was really nothing in my trunk then I would let him take a look, and he didn’t need my consent. He said he’d be right back, and went back to his car for a couple minutes.
At this point, I was starting to get pretty nervous. I was considering just letting him take a look in the trunk, but on general principle I just wasn’t comfortable with that. Before he came back, he took a full walk around my car, paying particular attention to the interior. I noticed him doing this, and I reached up and turned on the dome light to make the interior more visible. (There was literally nothing there except the briefcase on the passenger seat, and my mobile phone in the cup holder.
He came back to the window, and asked me to step out of the car. I complied, and closed the door behind me, to remind him that I was not consenting to a search.
We walked around to the passenger side of the vehicle, and he patted me down. (Perfectly appropriate—this isn’t a search, it’s a common-sense measure to protect the officer’s safety. I had no problem with this.) He then started asking the same questions, this time slightly more aggressively. Finally, after a few minutes of this, I started pushing back a little—I figured at this point I was either going to be arrested for no reason or go home, and I wanted to move on to the next step.
“Officer, I appreciate that people lie to you every day and it’s your job to be skeptical. However, I’m just a normal guy heading home from work. I wasn’t speeding, and I wasn’t disobeying any traffic laws. We’ve been here for over 30 minutes, and you’ve yet to indicate why you pulled me over. Given the duration of the stop, I must ask: Am I being detained?”
He dismissed the question without a response, saying “I’ll ask the questions, and 30 minutes is nothing. We’re just getting started—this will go a lot faster if you open the trunk and let me take a look under the seats. If you’re not willing to consent to a search, I can have a K9 unit here in 30 minutes.”
Again, it’s important to be polite and respectful with police officers—they deserve it. Also, I work with fortune-100 executives on a day-to-day basis—I know how to phrase things carefully and diplomatically. I don’t think I was being unreasonable, and other then refusing to consent to a search, I was fully cooperating with every request he made. The question about whether or not I was being detained was very intentionally chosen: being “detained” is the first formal step before “arrest.” After a certain amount of time, which varies from one state to the next, if you are not being detained then you have the Right to leave.
“Again, I would like to repeat my previous question: Am I being detained, and if so, for what reason?”
He said “You’re not being detained… yet.”
I replied “If I’m not being detained, can I assume that means I am free to go?”
He said he’d let me know when I was free to go, and that it would be a lot sooner if I was more cooperative.
“Officer, I don’t want to make your job more difficult, but I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to answer any further questions without my attorney present.”
He kept asking questions for a few minutes, and I remained completely silent. Finally, I broke the silence by saying “Am I being detained, and if so, for what reason?”
He repeated that I was not being detained. I said “Then I am free to go?” He said “Yes, you’re free to go. Drive safely.”
I honestly have no idea why this occurred, but it scared the crap out of me. Maybe there had been a report of a crime committed by someone driving a similar vehicle, or something similar. However, he could have indicated that this was the case and I would have been much more willing to indulge him. Absent a legitimate reason, I feel this was harassment plain and simple. Maybe he dislikes Microsoft employees, maybe he dislikes people in fancy cars… I don’t know, and I don’t want to make any assumptions—again there may have been a legitimate reason.
I got his badge number—I’m wondering what my readers think. Should I report this incident?