Breaking the law while white (and female? and midwestern? and boring?)

I work at home two days a week and in an office on the other side of the city from home three days a week. So Wednesday through Friday my life is pretty focused on that whole “commute” thing. To make things a bit more pleasant than they could be I work 10ish to 6:30ish and take a freeway route that cuts across the mountains North of the city and then South to campus. This route is somewhere between 5 and 10 miles longer than the other obvious route, but a pretty drive and generally takes about the same amount of time as the alternative. Because I leave the house around 9, and am not traversing a popular commute route, traffic is generally light and pretty speedy for the first 20 miles or so of my trip (the other 15 are on the 405 and another story altogether).

This morning traffic was particularly light and it was a lovely sunny morning. I eased into the left lane and relaxed into my drive. Just after cresting one of the big climbs, I glanced down at my speedometer, and then up at my rear view mirror. And cursed. Fortunately, particularly light traffic means you don’t have to fight your way through 5 lanes when you get pulled over.

I am, as a rule, polite to people in general. I am, however, particularly polite to cops. To be perfectly honest, cops (and pretty much anyone else who routinely carries a gun) scare the bejeezus out of me and thus politeness is a way to try to speed up the process of getting out of their presence. So, I pull over to the shoulder of the road, prepared to accept the ticket I so clearly deserve as politely as possible. There was simply no arguing it. I was speeding. Significantly. I know the ticket is going to be ugly but I figure it’s my own fault and there’s not much I can do about it. And so the conversation went something like this:

We exchange “good morning”s and he asks me why I was going so fast. I reply a bit sheepishly that I wasn’t paying attention (and this is mostly true. Though a more wholly true answer is that it’s a beautiful stretch of road, there was no one in front of me, and I was going downhill). He asked for my license. I gave it to him. Still smiling and cheerful. He asks me if I still live at the address on my license. I tell him no. (note to self, add a notecard with my current address to my wallet for these sorts of occasions). He asks if I’ve ever gotten a ticket before. This is where I sort of stumble. “No,” I say “well, not here. I got a ticket in WI once, years ago.” Then he starts giving me a lecture about slowing down, noting that people drive this stretch of road very fast and there are lots of accidents. He then notes that he caught my speed on a downhill and says “Do me a favor and slow down” and hands me back my license. “I will,” I say, “thank you.” As he’s walking away I wish him “have a nice day.”

And thus he gets back in his car and I sit for a moment, processing the situation. Did he really just let me off with a warning? Really? I was going fast enough that this seems truly impossible. But he gave me back my license. And the end of the conversation sounded unequivocally like the end of a conversation. So I decide that I have in fact been let off with just a warning and set about trying to pull into very light (but very fast) traffic from a dead stop, which isn’t fun since I don’t have as much visibility as I’d like. Cop pulls out after me, passes me, and goes on his way while I continue to drive at exactly the speed limit in the far right lane.

This is a mostly unremarkable story. Polite woman who drives too fast gets pulled over, is given a warning instead of a ticket, and goes about her day incredibly grateful for her good fortune. However, I mentioned this incident on a message board I frequent and noted that I had no idea how I got out of the ticket. One guy responded that it was likely because I was polite and respectful and added “I wonder if that would have spared Henry Louis Gates Jr. a world of hurt.”

It’s an interesting response to me in part because when incidents like the one with Gates happen one of my first reactions is always something along the lines of “well, yeah, what did you think would happen if you copped an attitude with the police?” Which is not to say that I think the arrest was in any way legitimate. Just that it didn’t surprise me, particularly. But Chalicechick makes the, very reasonable in my opinion, point that being rude to cops isn’t actually illegal and that the likely consequences of being rude to cops varies according to your skin color.
And indeed, I suspect that the likely consequences of being polite and respectful to cops varies too. Who knows why I managed to land myself a warning instead of a hefty ticket. Probably being polite had a lot to do with it but I suspect that the fact that I look totally boring and law-abiding (no matter what stereotypes you employ) had a lot to do with it too. And of course there’s the dumb luck part.

Perhaps it’s a sign I should buy a lottery ticket. But I think I’ll stick with just feeling generally cheerful and fortunate. (And, of course, driving more slowly)

One thought on “Breaking the law while white (and female? and midwestern? and boring?)”

  1. Reminds me of this one time CLV and I were going to a restaurant in her car. Which had out of date tags, and her license… well, you remember the old CLV, before she got organized. Anyway, there we were driving, and a cop pulls her over (she wasn’t really speeding, dunno what the alleged infraction was). She starts freaking before he even gets to the window, but she is calm and polite by the time he gets there. After he fully assesses the situation and all the ensuing paperwork, he asks me if I have a license. I say yes. He asks why we’re not in my car. I tell him I rode my motorcycle and didn’t have a spare helmet for her so this actually was the better option vehicle-wise. He asked that I get in the driver seat and that CLV try to get all the other stuff fixed in a timely manner.

    So a warning it was, that fine day in Monrovia…


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