“Strange encounter with a police officer”

police
Photo by PoPville flickr user Phil

“I apologize ahead of time for the long story.

Thursday November 10th at around 6:15pm I was pulled over by a DC police officer. The encounter was really strange and a little unsettling, so I’m wondering if anyone else has had similar experiences. Below is the encounter:

I was driving north on New Hampshire Ave, passing the Georgia Ave intersection, and turning right on Rock Creek Church Rd. The light at the intersection was green as I entered and turned yellow shortly thereafter. I was out of the intersection before it turned red. So I turned right on Rock Creek Church Rd and pulled up to the curb to park. I turned my car off and when I turned to get out of my car I noticed there was a car pulled up directly to my left, blocking me in. It was a police car (flashers were NOT on) and the officer was sitting inside it just staring at me. I rolled down my window and said “hello” – the officer did not respond but continued to stare at me. I then asked a series of questions including: Is there something I can help you with? Have I done something wrong? Am I in your way? The officer did not answer any of my questions, but just continued to stare at me. Confused, I took off my seatbelt and was about to try and open my door, when he started backing his vehicle up. I figured he was leaving, but instead he backed up to be diagonal behind my vehicle and then turned his flashers on.

He immediately got out of the car and walked up to my window and asked why I went through the light on yellow.

I told him I thought it was green when I entered and then turned yellow, he informed me it was yellow before I entered and that it’s illegal to go through a light on yellow. I apologized and told him I honestly thought it was still green when I entered. He asked to see my license, registration, and insurance information.

[Side note: I did not have my license with me because I was driving 7 blocks to feed a friends cat while she is out of town, so I had left my wallet at home. I honestly always have my license with me and of course the one time I didn’t, I got pulled over.]

I informed the officer that I didn’t have my license but I did have my vehicle registration and insurance information. He then proceeded to basically interrogate me with a series of questions about why don’t I have my license, how does he know I really have a license and am a legal driver, do I know the number of my license, what if something were to happen to me how would they identify me, where do I live, what am I doing over here, have I been drinking tonight, am I sure I haven’t been drinking tonight, am I lying to him because he doesn’t like being lied to…

Throughout this whole conversation I was incredibly polite, answered all of his questions, calling him sir and officer, and I wasn’t lying about anything! But the entire encounter he was very curt with me and he seemed angry, which really confused me because I gave him no reason to be. Overall, he seemed very suspicious of me. At then end of this “interrogation” he said “okay then” and started walking back to his car. He never indicated the encounter was over, he never actually looked at my vehicle registration or insurance, and he never took down my name to run it (which would have shown him that I have a valid drivers license). I wasn’t sure if that was the end, so I poked my head out of my window and asked if I was waiting for him to come back or if he needed to see my vehicle information and he forcefully replied “you are no longer being detained”. And then he drove off.

I realize I should have gotten a license plate or badge number on this guy, but I was so concerned that I might get a ticket for running a light (that I didn’t actually run) or for not having a license that I didn’t think of getting his information until after it was too late. The whole thing just seemed odd, from the beginning with him just staring at me while next to my car, to the crazy line of questioning, to the end where he told me I wasn’t being detained any more.

I am relatively new to DC and this was my first encounter with DC police. Is this normal? Has anyone else in the area had an experience like this? Is it the New Hampshire/Georgia intersection that’s maybe a hot spot? Any advice is appreciated.”

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58 Comment

  • Lol.. Sounds like a pretty standard stop to me! I’m guessing you haven’t interacted with the police, much?

  • sadly, I have to ask — are you a person of color? It makes a significant difference in what kind of response will register as normal business. DC like many places has its share of cops that are racist, bullies, or both, although I’ve encountered more DC cops who act respectfully towards citizens than those who do not.

  • That sounds like pretty much every other interaction I’ve had when I’ve been pulled over. Cops are unnecessarily curt in those situations I’ve found. I wouldn’t worry about it.

  • Cop wanted to bully someone. It is really good you were respectful in this bizarre and frightening situation and kept him chilled out so that he could find no reason to escalate the situation, which in my reading of this he was clearly trying to do. Sorry you had to go through this – glad it turned out to be safe for you in the end.

  • Bizarre. Also, it’s not illegal to turn right on a yellow light.

    • Ugh after getting a red light camera ticket (where I entered on yellow and there is photo proof that a cop was behind me watching me enter on yellow!), DC sent me the following in response to my adjudication attempt:
      .
      2103 TRAFFIC CONTROL SIGNALS: VEHICLES

      2103.5 A STEADY YELLOW SIGNAL alone shall have the following meaning:

      (a) Vehicular traffic facing a steady yellow signal is thereby warned that a related green signal is being terminated or that a red signal will be exhibited thereafter, or both; and

      (b) Vehicular traffic shall stop before entering the nearest crosswalk of the intersection, unless so close to the intersection that a stop cannot safely be made.

      TL;DR gotta stop on yellow

      • Tsar of Truxton

        Huh, I always thought yellow meant, step on the gas! J/k, obviously, that is the law, but I have never heard of someone getting pulled over for entering on yellow. That is the cop inserting his judgment for yours. I guess if someone noticeably accelerated it might make sense, but otherwise, it seems like a tough thing to prove.

    • If people didn’t turn on yellow, and on just turned red lights when they are already in the intersection, then there are many places where no cars would EVER be able to make a left turn, or even a right turn where there are a lot of pedestrians to wait to clear the crosswalk first.

  • No, that’s not a usual interaction with MPD. Good for you that you stayed calm, and that you learned a lesson about having your license. DC has an office of police complaints, but with the info you provided here you might not get too far.

  • Either looking to fill a quota, DWB, the “fit the description, broken tail light” illegal stoppage or in your case the ran the light excuse to pull you over and see if they can bully you. It doesn’t appear that you did anything wrong, you just experienced something that many of us have at least once before. Handled it well I might add.

    • “It doesn’t appear you did anything wrong”

      Did you miss the part where they said they ran through a yellow (illegal) and was driving without a license (very illegal)?

      If he was “looking to fill a quota,” I’d say he missed two opportunities to pad his book.

      • Driving without your license *on you* isn’t “very illegal.” In most places, an officer can issue a ticket for failure to produce a valid license, but the ticket carries no penalty if the cited driver provides proof of licensure within a certain period of time (most of the time, it involves showing up to a police station with your physical license within 5-10 days, give or take). In most cases, these days, the officer could confirm the driver was licensed on-scene, given the driver’s name, DOB, and *maybe* SSN/address (those might not even be necessary, and the address could be used as confirmation). I’m sure punching in my name and DOB, along with the statement that I have a DC license, would return to the officer that the name I gave was associated with a license for a 5’7, 150 pound white female with brown hair and eyes, who does not need corrective lenses, and is 36 years old. Since I fit the description… I wouldn’t even be surprised if my photo came up on the in-car computers.

  • You are lucky! the last time I got stopped and I had forgotten my id, I got 6 tickets worth $800 total (he gave me every ticket in the book that had something to do with the lack of id). I ended up going to court and only paid one ticket for not displaying my id ($60).

    • Sometimes they do these stoppages just to run your license and your plates and to see if you have anything outstanding.

    • If you couldn’t provide proof of insurance, District law specifically REQUIRES MPD officers to issue at least two tickets — failure to show proof of insurance ($50 I think) and failure to have insurance ($500). The $500 ticket can be waived at adjudication if the person can show they had insurance at the time.

      Chief Lanier tried to get the law changed because it is very bad for police – community relations exactly because people think they are being over-ticketed. (Plus DMV has other ways to get at uninsured drivers.) CMs McDuffie and Mendelson, however, would not move the proposal.

  • Always drive with our license even if it a few blocks

  • Sounds to me like a cop being kind of a jerk.
    .
    Don’t ever drive without your license again — even if you’re not going far.

  • My guess is that he thought you were in the neighborhood to buy drugs. I’m sorry this happened to you–it sounds super unpleasant.

  • Emmaleigh504

    Sounds pretty normal to me. They always ask a bunch of questions and are never nice about it.

  • Mistake #1: driving 7 blocks.

    Seriously, there is bikeshare everywhere around there… Or you could walk it… Or buses… Or whatever.

    (sorry, I couldn’t help but judge.)

  • For the love of drunken squirrels.. sometimes weird stuff happens.

    Maybe the cop had a bad day. Maybe you looked like a drug buyer that comes into the neighborhood often. Maybe your car reminded him of his ex-girlfriend. Maybe an unlicensed driver killed his pet parakeet. Weird thing happened. Everyone left and went on about their day.

    My advice is to accept the world is a kind of random and bizarre place.

    • Like it or not, believe it or not, encounters with police officers should always operate on a basis of clear law, not a “random and bizarre place” “Weird stuff” “drunken squirrels” “ex-girlfriend” or a “bad day” !!!!!

  • Andie302

    This sounds pretty standard to me. I had a similar experience recently with a PA state trooper that pulled me over for having a headlight out. I don’t think she ever ran my information, but she had a ton of questions and was relatively curt throughout the conversation. I assumed she was making sure my story added up and assessing whether I appeared to have been drinking. She asked follow up questions to earlier information I provided and was very thorough. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, but she didn’t do anything out of line either. I was just happy to drive away with only a verbal warning.

  • I once was ticketed for turning left on a yellow light at H Street NW and 6th Street NW. The light turned yellow after I was already in the intersection waiting for another car to pass and make a left turn. A cop pulled me over and immediately accused me of blatantly running a red light. He was very rude and issued me a handwritten ticket instead of the usual computer-generated citation. I was prepared to dispute the ticket since there is a traffic camera at that particular intersection which would disprove his assertion that I blatantly ran the red light. But the strangest part is that the officer never entered my ticket into the system and it was eventually dismissed. Good thing I didn’t just mail in the fine and call it a day – I would have been out $100 for no reason. It all seemed a bit shady to me.

  • Any individual to whom a license or permit to operate a motor vehicle has been issued shall have the license or permit in his or her immediate possession at all times while operating a motor vehicle in the District of Columbia and shall exhibit the license or permit to any police officer upon demand. Any person who fails to comply with the requirements of this subsection shall, upon conviction, be fined not less than $10 nor more than $50.

  • Not going to lie, I probably would also have interrogated you about why you were driving without your license. I don’t leave the house without mine, even though I don’t drive. It’s really common sense.
    .
    Also, I always understood that you should be stopping on yellow, not blowing through the intersection like so many people do in this city.

  • I’ve always thought that the no-nonsense “man-with-no-eyes” persona described here is pretty standard for cops when making routine stops. Remember, all the bad guys lie to them. And it’s not always easy to tell a bad guy from a good guy. So I’ve always thought they’re trying to rattle you to see what falls out. If you are appropriately intimidated, then you don’t deal with cops much and you’re probably a good guy. If you have an attitude, you’re going to learn to respect authority. If they ask you enough questions, eventually you’ll trip up if you’re hiding something, so just take it as it is.
    To tell the truth, I almost always give cops the benefit of the doubt just because I’ve known some cops and I know that even with a routine traffic stop, they don’t know what to expect. When I’ve been pulled over, my hands are clearly visible on the wheel because I don’t want them to have more stress than they need to (and believe me, I am not scary looking).
    As for the yellow light — I think it’s a judgement call because of the “if safe to stop” part. I was pulled over one time for speeding up at a yellow light and by the time I crossed, the light turned red. The cop was right behind me. His questions were “WHY did you do that?” “You saw me, so what was going through your mind?” I was genuinely sorry and appropriately contrite (and young and cute) so he let me go. That was many years ago though. I don’t think I’d be given the same kind of leeway today.

    • I understand that officers can encounter dangerous people during traffic stops, and so do part of what you mentioned (keep my hands on the wheel except for rolling down both front windows a bit…to add I immediately turn on the interior lights in the car if it’s after dark) so that they know I’m not a “bad guy” off the bat. But I’m not going to be “intimidated” by a police officer. I will answer questions pertinent to the situation, and be polite about it, but I’m not going to give them chapter and verse of my life or day just because they asked.
      .
      Here’s an example. I was a senior in college, visiting my family in the Midwest over a holiday, and had gone out for dinner with a high school friend of mine. I was driving her back to her family’s home when I noticed a cop following me. I didn’t think much of it since I hadn’t done anything illegal, and then he suddenly hit his lights. I pulled over, rolled the windows down, turned on the interior lights, and waited. Took forever for him to even come up to my car, and when he did, he ignored me and asked for my friend’s ID. I told her not to give it to him, since she was a passenger and he had no reason to be checking her ID. Then it dawned on me that it was ~11:30 PM, and this town has an 11 PM curfew for youths 15-17, saw us (and our youthful good looks), were looking to bust us for a curfew violation, found that the car came back registered to a 21-year-old who looked a lot like me, and decided to go after my passenger (who is 10 months older than me, and was actually *22* at that time). I looked at the cop and said “so you’re desperate to make a curfew bust, huh?” He looked away for a moment, stared at my friend for a moment, and then said “oh, I suppose you’re probably both adults. Get the hell out of here before I find a reason to write you a ticket.”
      .
      Let’s not make any bones about this. After running my plate, the cop had every reason to believe that the occupants of the car were adults who were not violating curfew laws. Despite that, he attempted to strong-arm identification out of my passenger, despite being in a jurisdiction that (at that time) did not require ID unless the person in question was driving or under arrest. And even if my passenger had been under 18, she could have still legally been in my car if she were an immediate family member under my responsibility. He was power tripping and/or trying to make a quota, and I and my friends don’t have to play that game while violating our 4th Amendment rights. If cops can’t deal with someone (politely) saying “sorry, no dice” under circumstances like that, they need a new line of work.

      • HaileUnlikely

        I appreciate your larger point, but I would dispute a few of the inferences that you drew here. If this was more than a few years ago, the officer certainly would not have seen an image of the registered owner of the vehicle when he checked your plates, and depending on the jurisdiction, might not have even seen the age of the registered owner. They’re looking for whether the car has been reported stolen or whether the registered owner has any outstanding warrants, that’s it. In less technologically-sophisticated jurisdictions, all of this would be done by radio and the officer on the scene would just have been told that your license plate came back clean. And the proportion of persons aged 15-17 who are the registered owner of a vehicle is close enough to zero that the fact that the car is not registered to a person aged 15-17 is not itself of any use when trying to determine whether a young-looking driver is aged 15-17. Again, I agree with your larger point, but many of the specific details that you provide in support of your point don’t actually support your point.

  • The first time I was pulled over, I did not have my ID, and was pulled over for an illegal pass (it was a country road where people routinely go around vehicle making left hand turns. I honestly didn’t know it was illegal). Oddly enough, I was heading home to get my wallet, which I had realized I had left at home. The cop was very brisk with me (I could see how one might say ‘interrogating’ me), and required that I provide my SSN so that I could be looked up in the system. I had to sit at the side of the road for 15 minutes while I was looked up, though thankfully I was allowed to remain in my car. When he came back, I was let go with a warning. I was white, he was white, and I was also 9 months pregnant at the time. Sometimes, as with all humans, cops can be dicks for no other reason than that they can.

  • I would send this story and any more information you have to Lieutenant Anthony Washington ([email protected], (202) 576-8220). He heads up PSA 407 which is responsible for the area you described. He is a great resource for engagement with the police. Tell him your story, meet with him or talk with him on the phone. If you felt threatened or uncomfortable by the action of one of his officers, he will surely want to hear about it and address the issue. Good luck.

  • So you drove through a yellow light and the officer made a legitimate stop. Then you don’t have your license (???) and now you’re whining that this encounter was vaguely threatening and you need to share this with people?

    No, you shouldn’t have gotten his badge number. No, he didn’t do anything wrong. And no, police officers shouldn’t feel pressured into standing down from enforcing traffic laws.

  • Just to add, if the officer ran your plates before they came up to you they would already know the name and DOB of the registered owner, as well as of the registered owner has a valid license, so if you were indeed the registered owner they would know that prior to walking up to the car, so if you provided that info they know you are legit.

  • I’m willing to bet that what you perceived as him staring at you was him looking at the computer that is mounted in the area between the passenger and driver sides of the car while waiting for information to come back on your plates. He would have already known the name and address of who the car was registered to when he approached and he asked a series of questions to confirm that info since you couldn’t provide ID.

  • DC has a great system for submitting grievances against cops. i had a strange encounter a few months ago and i filled out a complaint online. i got a call a few days later from an investigator a few days later. she recorded the interview and asked if i wanted to meet with the cop with a mediator (i opted not too since the cops behavior, albeit somewhat ludicrous, wasnt so egregious). overall, i was glad to know the process is in place.

  • you didn’t get beat the hell up, shot, or tased. that’s pretty lucky here, even with “standard stops where you didn’t do anything wrong.” not getting a BS ticket is a HUGE plus and likely not to happen again. count your blessings and take this to heart: do not interact with Metro PD unless ABSOLUTELY necessary.

    • Well, this will probably fall on deaf ears as you obviously have a huge ax to grind, but as has been pointed out in this thread, running a yellow in DC is ticketable and one of the first posts makes light of the fact that DC police aren’t exactly known for aggressive traffic enforcement.

  • northeazy

    So this all depends on your race. If you are white or white-Hispanic like George Zimmerman, then my response is “yeah welcome to how the rest of the country gets treated by the police. Check your privilege.” If you are black or a Hispanic the NY Times doesn’t want to demonize (all non-Republican Hispanics) then my answer is that the cop is racist and only pulled you over because you are a minority.

  • Yes. Completely normal. And. Ok.