Friday, May 11, 2007

People v. Verdugo (S.B. App. Div. - April 17, 2007)

Rarely do decisions of the Appellate Division get published. And when, as here, they do, it usually takes a long time for them actually to be "published". But, as here, when they are, they're usually something special.

Those of us in California who have had the misfortune of being stopped by the police for a traffic violation will easily recall the typical opening mantra of the officer as s/he greets us at our vehicle's window: "Licence, registration, and proof of insurance, please." Which we dutifully turn over to the officer, as our failure to do so would, in everyone's mind, be an additional offense; e.g., for failure to present proof of insurance.

Except, as I have now discovered, it's not actually that way. A straightforward reading of the statute reveals, and as the Appellate Division holds, that you're only required to present proof of insurance after (and only if) you receive a ticket for another offense. Sure, once they hand you that other ticket, they can demand proof of insurance. But not until. So, for example, if they don't write you a ticket, or let you off with a warning, they technically can't demand proof of insurance. And, as here, if they do, and detain you in order to investigate your insurance status (or, presumably, just refuse to let you go while they write the ticket for failure to give proof of insurance), that's an unconstitutional seizure.

Who knew?! What's most interesting about this discovery -- to me, at least -- is that, upon reading the statute, it seems clearly right. And yet, notwithstanding that fact, everyone (including the police) assumes otherwise. Which just goes to show that just because a law is written that says X, everyone may still do Y -- thousands of times a day, for years -- until someone actually bothers to read and interpret the actual statute.

Mind you, I'm not sure that typical police practices will change anytime soon. They may well still approach vehicles with the mantra "License, registration, and proof of insurance" on the theory that they're merely "requesting" (rather than demanding) these documents, and almost assuredly, you're going to give them to them anyway -- if only to avoid hacking them off (and, among other things, thereby encourage them to write you a ticket for whatever offenses for which they originally stopped you).

Still, it's nice to know that, if you wanted, you could say "Nah, I'm not giving you proof of insurance until you write me a ticket. And I don't think you can. So there." Sort of gives you the illusion of power. Which is nice.