On January 30 I was stopped in Woodstock for a headlight out. Right in front of my house. I mean, right in front.
The officer, whom I've know for about four years, greeted me by my first name and asked if I knew my headlight was out. Because I didn't think I had any reason to suspect that I might be treated unfairly, I answered that I did know the headlight was out. I explained that I knew exactly where it had gone out. Ten miles back in Wonder Lake. Twenty minutes earlier. I explained also that I had driven straight to my house. There was no repair garage between Wonder Lake and my house. There was no place open at 6:00PM to get a new headlight installed. There was no public transportation at that hour from Wonder Lake to Woodstock.
The headlight had gone out two weeks before, and I showed the officer my vehicle repair record. He said that, since he had stopped me, he would have to give me a Warning. No problem. I expected to take the car back to DeCraene's the next morning and get it fixed again. The officer returned to his car, and I waited in my car.
Another Woodstock squad car arrived. Back-up, don't you know? The two officers talked, and then the second car departed. I read the Car Number as it passed me. Then the first officer walked to my car and told me he was going to give me a ticket! I asked just what had changed in the past ten minutes, and he didn't have an answer (or at least one that he would give me).
He wrote me a $75.00 ticket. He offered to call his sergeant, and the sergeant came to where we were stopped. I explained again that I knew exactly where the headlight had gone out, because I was keeping an extra close eye on my driving and vehicle.
Early in January I had received a telephone call from an employee at the sheriff's department who told me there was a $100 Bounty out on me; any deputy who could write me a ticket for anything would get $100 cash! I have the name of the person purportedly offering the Bounty! I had dictated the mileage where the headlight went out into a pocket tape recorder that I keep in the car, and I played the tape for the officer and the sergeant. Then I turned on the lights and pointed to the odometer - exactly ten miles after the mileage on the tape recording!
The sergeant let the officer's decision stand and the ticket was issued. I said, "Jim, you do what you have to do, and then I'll do what I have to do." I have told many people this story - to a man, they have used two words to describe the officer's decision. The first starts with B, and the second starts with S.
I met with Chief Lowen to learn the officer's reason. The officer decided that since I am quite vocal about traffic violations and want the laws enforced, then he would give me the ticket and not a Warning. I filed a Freedom of Information Act request and learned that the officer had made 77 traffic stops in the past 90 days. He issued 39 tickets and 38 warnings. I appreciated that Chief Lowen was willing to meet with me and be honest about the officer's decision-making process. In many cities and towns, a chief would never do that, especially before a court date.
I had thought of defending myself and taking up an hour of the judge's time. I considered having subpeonas issued to the sergeant, the second officer, and the records sergeant, and obtaining copies of the computer records, in-car camera videotape which would show the officer's telling me he would give me a Warning, police radio traffic, and cell phone records of the Department cell phone and the officer's personal cell phone. I figured that the judge would probably say, "Good try, Gus, but was the headlight out?" and then fine me not only the $75.00 (if not more) but also obligate me to $150 of court costs. Add lost work time, and it wasn't worth it - this time...
Was the ticket unfair?
Did the officer have the right to give me a ticket? Absolutely.
Did he make a bad decision, when he changed his mind? Absolutely.
When I was a cop, I was aware that we always had the right to issue a ticket, if we stopped a driver for a valid reason. If a driver was argumentative, abusive, profane, whatever, we could always write a ticket. But, if a courteous roadside contact solved the problem, especially for a vehicle equipment item, then no ticket was needed.
Was I singled out? You bet. It only took a couple of days for the person offering the Bounty at the sheriff's department to hear about my ticket. Four days later I got a call from an employee there who told that person was jumping up and down (with joy) that "Woodstock nailed Philpott".
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