Tuesday, December 6, 2005 - 12:00 AM
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State trooper or panhandler? Drivers fooled
By Jennifer Sullivan
Seattle Times staff reporter
In the three years since state lawmakers gave cops the go-ahead to pull over people for not wearing seat belts, the State Patrol has become creative about spotting scofflaws.
But one new approach has raised a few eyebrows — while providing results troopers call impressive.
On Saturday, a trooper stood on a street corner in Spanaway, Pierce County, and helped bust 30 people for not wearing their seat belts. The trooper, wearing plain clothes and a cardboard sign around his neck that read "Happy Holidays Buckle Up," was able to keep a close eye on passing traffic from the southeast corner of Highway 7 and 112th Street East. When he spotted someone who wasn't wearing a seat belt, the trooper radioed fellow troopers parked nearby who pulled over the offender.
In four hours, 41 cars were stopped and 30 seat-belt tickets, costing violators $101 per infraction, were handed out, Trooper J.J. Gundermann said. Troopers also made one drug arrest and six outstanding-warrant arrests.
Some motorists, seeing a man on the roadside wearing a sign, offered him money, apparently figuring he was a panhandler, the State Patrol said. The trooper refused the money.
State troopers dressed in plain clothes looking for people who weren't wearing seat belts:
Went too far - 31%
Displayed initiative - 55%
Shouldn't enforce this law - 14%
Total votes: 1,624
While the tactic proved successful, some are questioning whether it was proper.
John Strait, a law professor at Seattle University, said the operation "sounds tacky" but isn't illegal.
"I'm not sure it's great public policy," Strait said. "I don't think there's a legal privacy issue."
University of Washington criminal-law professor John Junker said police have a right to work in an undercover capacity. They also have a right to penalize people for what can be seen in plain view — such as not wearing a seat belt.
Troopers in King County say they are considering using the same tactic.
The seat-belt operation was first used last month in Vancouver, Wash. Dressed in a windbreaker, jeans and a baseball cap, Sgt. Jason Linn smiled as he held up a cardboard sign wishing motorists a happy holiday season and urging them to buckle up. Again, some motorists thought he was panhandling and offered him money.
Nineteen people were stopped in a 2 ½-hour span and ticketed for not wearing seat belts.
"What we're doing is we're trying to promote the use of seat belts," Vancouver-based Trooper Mike Kesler said. "If they [motorists] took the time to read the sign, it basically told them why we were there."
State Patrol Capt. Steve Burns, who oversees operations in King County, said he's watching how the tactic plays out in other parts of the state before phasing it in locally. Kesler said troopers in Clark County plan to do it again before the end of the year.
In 2002 the Legislature made it legal for authorities to stop motorists and passengers for not wearing seat belts. This updated a 1986 law that allowed for a seat-belt ticket only if authorities stopped a car for a different offense.
Kesler said Linn came up with the strategy because of the high number of panhandlers in the Vancouver area. It was easy for Linn to "blend in," he said.
One passenger rolled down his window, hollered obscenities at Linn and hurled a half-full can of soda before he realized Linn was a trooper. The man was given a $1,050 littering ticket. A 15-year-old who was driving the car was cited for not having a valid license and for allegedly stealing his father's rental car, Kesler said.
Several of the people caught in the Vancouver bust were agitated by the operation, and one person called it "slick," Kesler said. But Gundermann, the Pierce County trooper, said people stopped in Spanaway were supportive.
"We got real positive feedback," Gundermann said. "One of the gals we stopped thought it was a great idea."
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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