Warning or Ticket? How to Decide

by | June 23, 2023

You’re a new officer just finished with field training, finally hitting the streets on your own. You have the powers of arrest, and the authority to cite every traffic violator who crosses your path. So how do you decide if a violator gets a warning or a ticket?

Maybe you’re a seasoned veteran who still has a difficult time discerning who is graced with a warning and who gets a ticket. Let’s see if we can give you a new perspective that comes from many years of experience — plus, a recent brush with the law.

Academy Training

I remember the first time the subject of warnings versus citations came up in my academy training. The instructor was a veteran of the Highway Patrol. His sage advice was to make your decision about giving a warning or ticket before you ever contact the driver. His logic was, by doing so, you eliminate the chance of the driver talking you out of giving them a ticket. He also told us if we had already decided we were going to issue a warning, to never change our minds because of the driver’s attitude. He said he had always used this method and it served him well.

Because I was young and impressionable, I followed that advice for a while. After a while, though, I discovered there were too many times I had decided to write a violator a ticket only to find, once I spoke to them, that a warning would accomplish my goal. Or I would be set on a warning and then, after talking to the driver, I would conclude a warning would only encourage further bad behavior. My goal, of course, was to prevent car crashes, injuries and death on our roadways. Isn’t that why we have traffic laws in the first place? To keep the motoring public safe?

The goal should be to end every traffic stop with the offending driver leaving the scene with a new perspective that makes them safer drivers.

Fidelity to the Law

Let me share a few examples. One late night I was running radar on a desolate stretch of highway. Cars would come through my area only every 15 to 20 minutes. Finally, I got the tone and locked onto an SUV driving 80 mph in a posted 65-mph zone. “How dare they?” I thought. I snapped a quick U-turn as any good officer would do. And you’d better believe I had already made my decision that I was going to cite this guy. But, when I walked up to the driver’s side of the SUV I found a sobbing wife in the passenger seat, two sweet little children sleeping in the back seat, and a driver with a lost look on his face. It was obvious there was a whole lot more to the story than I could have ever imagined.

I asked the driver why he was driving so fast, and he blurted, “While on vacation, I found out today that my wife has been having an affair with my best friend. I just want to get home!” I was 23 years old, single and childless. I couldn’t even pretend to know what this guy was feeling at that moment, but I had an idea it wasn’t a feeling of wanting to be in a car with his wife for any longer than he had to be. I had him step out and come to the rear of the vehicle. In private, I told him I empathized with his situation, but the safety of his two children in the back seat — and that of any other families on the road — really needed to be his priority during his long drive home. He agreed and I sent them on their way with a warning.

Looking back on that scenario, I know there was a chance the couple had rehearsed and played out this same story every time they got pulled over for speeding. If so, their reward for great acting was the warning I gave them and the money they saved on fines and insurance increases. Still, I think it was real. And if it was, what good would have come from me writing him a citation? I think it would have only made things worse for him and his family.

Three Traffic Stops

Fast forward 28 years to my first year of retirement. At that point in my life, I had written hundreds of traffic citations and issued even more warnings for traffic violations. I had also been my department’s traffic lieutenant responsible for setting guidelines for our traffic officers. Up to that point in my life, I had only been pulled over three times.

The first time, I was purposely exceeding the speed limit on my way home after a graveyard shift. I was going 80 mph in a 70-mph zone on an empty four-lane freeway. I was given a warning and I made sure to abide by the speed limit on my way home from then on. I appreciated the warning and wasn’t going to press my luck.

The second time was while I was on duty in an unmarked car. I was doing surveillance and trying to keep up with the person we were tailing. The highway patrol officer who stopped me continued to lecture me even after I explained what I was doing. I did not appreciate anything he said at that time.

The third time was about four months after I retired. That was the point when my whole view on warnings versus citations became very clear. I was driving into the little town where I now live. As I entered the city limits, I slowed from 45 mph to 35 mph and then prepared to slow to 25 mph as I knew the 25-mph speed limit sign was at the next traffic light. At that point, I saw red and blue lights. The local sheriff’s department patrol pickup truck was coming up behind me. As I looked in my mirror to see who had caught the deputy’s attention, I thought, “Oh he’s gonna get somebody.” Then I saw the deputy make a U-turn and figured he was after the guy in front of me. I quickly pulled over to get out of his way, but he pulled in behind me. What? I was going 28 mph in a 35-mph zone. Maybe I had a headlight out? I’d just bought the truck two days before, so I figured it must be an equipment violation or something simple.

The deputy walked up to my window and asked me if I knew what the speed limit was where he stopped me. Pointing to the sign that was visible up ahead, I told him, “It’s 35 mph right up until that next sign up there.” He said, “Nope. It’s 25 mph back there by the gas station.” I explained to him that I had lived in the area for about four months, and I had always thought the speed limit was 35 mph until the last traffic light, where the 25-mph sign was. I was not intentionally speeding. In fact, in my mind, I was going 7 mph below the speed limit because I was driving 28 mph in what I thought was a 35-mph zone.

After a short conversation, I was getting the impression the deputy was going to write me a ticket. During the few short minutes I thought he was filling out a citation, I felt truly victimized. I had not intentionally violated the law, and even if I had, it was only by 3 mph. I thought about my perfect driving record being tarnished, what my eight-year-old son (who was sitting next to me at the time) would think of me. I worried about how much my insurance could go up because of an innocent mistake. The deputy finally returned and gave me a warning.

Over the next several hours I reflected on the experience. None of those thoughts ever crossed my mind when I was the one issuing the citations. How many good, law-abiding people did I ticket over the years? How many of them had violated the law by mistake and how many of them would have changed their driving habits if I had only warned them? How many single mothers or fathers had to take a day off work to go to traffic court, or work extra hours to pay a fine because I hadn’t made a more educated and thoughtful choice in issuing a warning versus a citation? I’ll never know the answers to those questions, but I assure you I would do things differently if I could go back in time.

Honest Mistakes

I realize some of you reading this are likely thinking, “Who cares about all of that? That’s their problem. If they don’t want to have to deal with court, then they shouldn’t have committed the violation.” I assume this because those are some things I said and thought when I was on patrol.

Take a look at this scenario: Your significant other goes grocery shopping and opts to check out using the new self-checkout register. After paying for everything, they head outside and start loading the groceries into the car. On the way to the cart return, they notice a carton of eggs on the bottom rack of the cart and realize they never rang the eggs up at the register. They take the eggs back into the store and pay for them. No harm, no foul right? Well, what is the difference between that scenario and someone that truly didn’t know the speed limit had dropped 10 mph back at the last intersection, forgot to signal when they made a lane change, or just plain didn’t realize they violated some obscure traffic law? (By the way, I’m the one who forgot to ring up the eggs and had to go back and pay for them. That was just a few weeks ago.)

Have any of you ever worked a “Click It or Ticket” operation? We all know the rules. No warnings for people not wearing their seatbelts during those campaigns, right? I know some departments also work traffic campaigns with a zero-tolerance approach, but I do not think it is ever right or just to take discretion away from officers. There are too many variables in any scenario involving a traffic violation to ever follow a zero-tolerance policy. I’m not saying officers should buy every excuse drivers throw at them. Instead, I’m saying they should use good judgment, taking into consideration what the driver has to say and also the officer’s own experience as a driver.

Warning or Ticket?

The fact is, we all make mistakes in all things we do. If those mistakes are made because we are careless, reckless or otherwise dismissing the safety of others we share the roadways with, then maybe we deserve a traffic citation. But, if the mistake was innocent, or clearly a one-off lapse in judgment, I would argue that a friendly and professional warning will serve them better than a citation and will serve officers better in the public eye.

The goal should be to end every traffic stop with the offending driver leaving the scene with a new perspective that makes them a safer driver. If you think a citation is the way to accomplish that goal, then fill it out and send them on their way. But, put some thought into your decision. Don’t just decide before you ever get out of your patrol car because some other officer told you that’s the way they have always done it.

Finally, no matter what you do, please keep your personal safety a priority during every stop and contact you make. Protecting yourself should always come first!

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