The Cop Column
November, 2006
Sgt. Rick Hord
Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office

Traffic Stops: Five FAQ's

            It happens to most drivers, sooner or later: the dreaded sight of flashing blue lights in the rearview mirror. The unwelcome experience leaves many motorists with unanswered questions. Let’s tackle five of the most common:

            Why did I get stopped instead of someone else?

            Not everybody who commits a violation gets caught. It may be that the officer didn’t see the other car, or that traffic or road considerations made it unsafe to make a traffic stop, even if the other driver may have been deserving of a ticket. Yes, it could  just be your bad luck.  

            Couldn’t the officer have given me a warning instead of a ticket?

            Traffic enforcement doesn’t accomplish much unless it encourages voluntary compliance with the laws. I remember riding in a car driven by a friend a few years ago. He eagerly stopped for a yellow light instead of trying to “beat the red,” and explained “I got a ticket at this light three years ago.” That’s exactly why we write tickets. That one is still generating voluntary compliance, several years later.  It made the roads safer for everyone.  Do you think he would have said “I got a warning at this light three years ago?”

How can the officer justify writing me a ticket when I didn’t even see the red light/speed limit sign, etc?

            This is a common argument by drivers who don’t believe they deserved a ticket. It holds no weight. Anyone driving on a public road is responsible for paying attention to all those signs, lights, pavement markings, obstructions, and other vehicles.          

How do I complain about the ticket or the officer?

            Two separate issues could be involved: either you don’t believe you deserve the citation, or the officer was less than courteous and professional.

A rude officer should be reported to his or her supervisor. Your complaint will probably carry more weight if you wait a day or two to compose your thoughts. Make some notes to organize your message, and make one or more telephone calls to find out the appropriate supervisor before sending a letter or e-mail. 

If you have a difference of opinion with the officer over the alleged violation and the merits of the ticket, contact the Clerk of Courts Office and request a hearing date. A Judge or Hearing Officer will listen to you and the officer, plus any witnesses, ask a few questions, and make a ruling. The Judge or Hearing Officer is an independent arbiter who works for the citizens, not for a law enforcement agency.

            Does a traffic citation make me a criminal?

            Usually not. Speeding, Failure to Yield, Careless Driving, Running a Red Light and most other common violations are legally classified as infractions, not crimes.  DUI, Racing on a Public Highway , Knowingly Driving on a Suspended License, Violation of License Restrictions, and a few other offenses are crimes. If you have the option of paying a fine instead of going to court, it’s an infraction, not a crime.