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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Motor Vehicle Questions Answered

I'm not a lawyer, but I spend a fair amount of time in court, and I'll attempt to answer your questions as best as I can. All answers apply in Massachusetts, although if you need an answer for another state, I can look it up. Submit additional questions on twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below.

Q: Is it illegal to flash your headlights at oncoming traffic to warn them about a police officer ahead?

A: I can't find any law that says it is, and I've certainly never cited anyone for it. I think it would be difficult in court to prove why you had flashed your high beams, as there are other reasons to do so that are perfectly acceptable (to inform someone their headlights aren't on, for instance).
A creative police officer could possibly cite you for 540 CMR 22.05(2), Failure to dim your high beams within 500 feet of approaching traffic, which carries a fine of $35.
As a side note, keep in mind that the ultimate goal of speed enforcement isn't to generate revenue, it's to keep people safe by slowing them down. So, whether you slow down because someone flashed their lights at you, or because you saw my cruiser, it's all the same to me (assuming you weren't traveling at a ridiculous speed to begin with). I'm mostly worried about the people that blow by me without any reaction at all.

Q: Can you drive in the fast lane in a pick-up truck with dual rear wheels.

A: I don't bust heads on the highway, and I'll admit I had never heard of this one before. A little research shows that it is definitely illegal for heavy commercial vehicles to operate in the passing (left-most) lane. Mass General Law, Chapter 89, Section 4c states:
On any highway with more than one passing lane in the same direction, heavy commercial vehicles, except buses, shall be restricted in ordinary operation to the right-hand travel lane, and in overtaking and passing shall be restricted to the next adjacent passing or travel lane, and shall not use any other lanes except in an emergency. For the purpose of this section, heavy commercial vehicles shall be defined as those in excess of two and one half tons used for transportation of goods, wares, and merchandise.

So it would seem if your pickup has commercial plates and is over 2 1/2 tons, the answer would be yes. On a public way, this carries a fine of $100, and if you are on a state highway, you can receive a "parallel violation" of 720 CMR 9.08(5)B.

Q: A police officer ran my plate and I wasn't doing anything wrong. That's a violation of my constitutional rights, man!

A: Sorry, but the courts have held that you have no right to privacy with something you publicly display, like a license plate. The police can run your plate for any reason, or even for no reason, and if that leads them to believe you are committing a crime, you'll be pulled over.

Q: When can the police search my car?

A: There are generally 4 times police can conduct a search of your car:

  • With consent. In Massachusetts, you have to be stopped for a criminal violation (as opposed to a civil infraction), police can ask for consent to search your vehicle during the course of a traffic stop. If you're in another state, or in federal jurisdiction such as a National Park, the police can ask for consent if you were stopped for any reason.
  • With probable cause. Due to the mobile nature of a vehicle, sometimes an exigency is created which would keep law enforcement from being able to obtain a search warrant before evidence of a crime could be moved or destroyed. As long as the officer has probable cause to believe there is evidence of a crime in your  vehicle, he can search your vehicle for evidence of that crime without a warrant.
  • With a search warrant. With probable cause, the police may apply for a search warrant for your vehicle. When this happens, usually the vehicle is seized and held in police impound unitl the warrant can be obtained.
  • When you are arrested. If you are driving around, and end up arrested, it is legal for police to search the passenger compartment of your car for weapons within your reach and evidence of the crime you are committing. If further evidence is found, it may provide probable cause to then search your trunk or other areas of your vehicle.
Q: Do police have to have their parking lights on when on the side of the road looking for speeders?

A: There's no legal requirement that prevents police from hiding while conducting vehicle enforcement, including turning all their lights off.

Q: A state trooper gave me a ticket, but he didn't have his hat on. It doesn't count, right?

A: It counts. You have twenty days to pay or appeal.

Keep the questions coming!

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