It’s probably best to leave traffic stops to the cops

By Columnist Kerry Dougherty, The Virginian-Pilot – 4/11/2012

Admit it.

From time to time you’ve fantasized about having a set of flashing blue lights on the roof of your car so you could pull over really bad drivers. Let’s face it, there’s never a cop around when some dope demonstrates what not to do behind the wheel.

For instance, Sunday night I was forced to follow a slowpoke up the ramp that leads from I-64 onto I-264 east. This phlegmatic driver was two cars ahead, going 15 mph, tops. His speed – or lack of it – was causing mayhem in his wake as a daisy-chain of motorists hit their brakes to avoid ramming the car in front.

Next thing we knew, we were all part of a slo-mo convoy, forced to follow some shrimp who could barely see over the steering wheel on his Buick. Worse, we were about to merge into the passing lane of an interstate where everyone else was already going at least 65.

Heart-stopping.

As I eased my clown car into speeding traffic I prayed I wouldn’t be flattened by an 18-wheeler.

If I’d had a badge and a gun I would have arrested this plodding menace on the spot.

Instead, I swore under my breath and gave him a dirty look as I passed him on the right.

Which brings us to the Portsmouth fire department employee, Ricky McCleod, who used the flashing lights on his city-owned Chevy in January to pull over a driver in Suffolk who was allegedly swerving in traffic.

Nope, he wasn’t a cop. In fact, according to a story in Tuesday’s Pilot by Patrick Wilson, he hadn’t yet had any law-enforcement training. And he was well outside the Portsmouth city limits.

McCleod reportedly told the driver she wasn’t using a seat belt, took her driver’s license back to his car – Lord knows why – returned it and let her go.

That might have been the end of it, except Suffolk police officers weren’t thrilled about a neighboring fire marshal encroaching on their territory.

The matter found its way to Suffolk’s commonwealth’s attorney, who decided that McCleod had not committed a crime – impersonating a police officer – when he made the stop.

“I believe Fire Marshal McCleod made a legal citizen’s arrest,” prosecutor Phil Ferguson wrote.

In other words, McCleod did something any one of us can do when we encounter someone who appears to be a danger on the roads.

For a clarification about what all this means, I called Virginia Beach lawyer Steven Emmert, who spent nine years in the city attorney’s office before going into private practice. He’s had experience with folks trying to exercise those same rights.

Emmert explained that there’s no mention of “citizen arrests” in the state code. The concept comes to us through English Common Law. Virginia courts have ruled that there are essentially two instances when we can arrest our fellow citizens:

“When you witness someone committing a felony or a misdemeanor involving a breach of the peace,” Emmert said.

Reckless driving fits that second description, he noted.

Yippee!

Wait. Who am I kidding? I’m not going to pull anyone over, and neither should you.

Traffic stops are some of the most dangerous actions police officers ever attempt. They go through extensive training about how and where to safely detain drivers so they don’t get shot in the process.

Those of us without badges, guns and training should stick to muttered curses and defensive driving. Even if we somehow find ourselves behind the wheel of a city-owned emergency vehicle equipped with flashing lights.

Pilot news researcher Jake Hayes contributed to this column.
Kerry Dougherty, 757-446-2306.