By Darren Fraser
This question coursed through my brain as the police officer explained why he was impounding my car and issuing me a criminal citation because my license plates were not only expired but were registered to another individual. And, no, in case you’re wondering. It is not just.
Last month, I purchased a used car from a private party. Money was owed on the car. The seller used my money to pay off the vehicle so that the bank would release the title to him and he, in turn, would turn over the title to me. About a week after I had the car, a Mount Desert police officer pulled me over early one morning as I was on my way to work. He pulled me over because I failed to turn on my headlights. After he ran my plates, he informed me they were expired and that it was against the law for me to drive a vehicle with expired plates. He also informed me the plates were still registered to the previous owner. I explained I was waiting for the title. He said I must go to BMV and receive temporary tags (I later called the bureau and was told I must have the title to receive temporary tags). The officer let me off with a warning.
On Jan. 26, the same officer pulled me over as I was heading to work. (The officer camps out in the parking lot of the Somesville branch of Bar Harbor Bank and Trust.) Again, it was early morning. Again, I was dressed for work. (I am a road flagger. I dress in fluorescent yellow. I resemble a giant highlighter.) The officer informed me he had given me a warning. I explained I still had not received the title and I did not know what to do. After consulting with a second officer who arrived on the scene, the first officer informed me he would be impounding my car and would be issuing me a criminal citation.
I paid $300 to rent a car. I paid $200 to get my car out of the impound lot. I lost days of work running about trying to resolve these issues. Why? Because a police officer with too much time on his hands and with too little crime to occupy his time decided I must be made an example. Yes, I was in violation of the law. But was it just what the officer did? No.
I live on this officer’s beat. I have seen his police vehicle parked in the same location on numerous occasions. And he knows I live in the area because he took down my address when he first pulled me over. He knows I work for a living (i.e., I am not a flight risk. Nor am I a criminal. I am a person who is trying to get along in this world, not unlike many of you reading this article). I made a mistake. I should have waited until I had possession of the car title before I operated the car. But was it just for the officer to do what he did? No.
It was unjust. It was unjust because the officer knows I am not a criminal. He knows I am not a flight risk. He knows my situation. Instead of taking my car and issuing me a criminal citation, he could have issued me a fix-it ticket. He could have placed the onus of responsibility on my shoulders to find him and show him the car with its new, legal plates and its registration under my name. But he did not do this. Why?
When I told others what happened, most asked, “Which police department was it?” When I told them Mount Desert, they were uniform in their reaction: “That figures.” These individuals explained because there is little to no crime in the area, the police seize on what illegalities they can. Is this just? No. And here’s why.
I would argue these same police officers do not cite tourists for similar infractions. Why? Money. Tourist dollars are the bedrock of MDI’s economy. Of course, there are no tourists now. The only people on the island now are people who live here year around. We are not the wealthy Mainers who have summer homes and who can afford to summer here. Which means the individuals the Mount Desert police pull over are you; they’re me; they are all of us who are working folks. People who are trying to get by as best we can.
I am not arguing in favor of zero police activity. Nor am I anti-law enforcement or anti-police. What I am in favor of is fairness, empathy and compassion. The police officer who impounded my car and issued me a criminal citation – I have a March 22 court date – could have just as easily not cited me. He could have understood I am not a criminal nor am I a flight risk. He could have just as easily issued me that fix-it ticket. And I would have done exactly what he asked of me. I would have found him and showed him my new, legal license plates and the car registration under my name.
Was it legal what he did? Yes. What is just? No. And when it is not just, then what is it?
Darren Fraser lives in Mount Desert.