This article was updated on Feb. 22, 2007.
If you were to walk into Daniel Smiechowski's garage, within seconds you'd get a good sense of who he is. There's a large framed photo of John Kerry sitting on a desk (and another of Jimmy Carter just inside the door). A tri-athlete, Smiechowski's got all his entry numbers hanging on a far wall next to campaign signs for elected positions he's run for, among them one that helps with the pronunciation of his name: “Smee-hoff-skee.”
Smiechowski wonders what kind of guy the two police officers who pulled him over on Feb. 3 thought he was. It was around 11 p.m., about a mile from his Bay Park home. Smiechowski's older-model Ford Escort—with its bike rack and collection of oval stickers from European countries—had a burned-out taillight. And, due to a misunderstanding about him needing to pick up a new temporary registration sticker from the DMV—one that had him covered through March—the tag affixed to the car's rear window had expired in October.
Smiechowski handed the officer his license and proof of insurance and tried to explain the confusion surrounding the expired tag. Then he waited in his car for a half hour, he says, at the end of which he was told to step out of the vehicle. He was frisked and sat on the curb in the rain while the two officers searched his car and then had it towed.
Smiechowski had to borrow $295 to get his car out of impound. Under state law, a police officer can have a car towed if the vehicle's registration is six or more months expired.
“I don't have any money; I'm barely surviving now because all the money went to my father,” he said. For the last 10 years, he's worked low-pay, part-time jobs—as an after-school tutor and a limo driver—so he could devote most of his time to caring for his ailing father, who died a few months ago.
Under the Fourth Amendment, police are authorized to pat a person down if there's reasonable suspicion that the individual might possess a weapon—but you have the right to tell the officer that you don't consent to the search. Likewise, police must have probable cause to search a vehicle, though, if a car's going to be towed, an officer must conduct an inventory search in case an owner alleges that something disappeared, or damage happened, between the time the car was towed and when the owner gets it out of the impound lot.
“My knees were buckling,” Smiechowski said. “I'd never been exposed to police power.” He was upset, sure. “Maybe the intonation, maybe the tone of my voice was a little high. All I said was, ‘This is America, what are you doing to me?' … I didn't raise my voice. I was polite, and that was it. Here I am standing there being patted down, and they're searching my car for drugs, and I'm telling them, ‘Look, you checked me on the computer—I'm not a criminal, nothing. You checked me out.'”
An officer with knowledge of the incident—who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the stop is under investigation—said Smiechowski was never told that his car was being searched for drugs, but Smiechowski insists that's what he heard. The same officer said that police follow the letter of the law when it comes to towing cars—if they let the vehicle's owner off with a warning or a ticket and the driver ends up getting into an accident, the police department (and, by extension, the city or county) could be held liable for not taking the car away when they had the chance. 'It's happened before,' the officer said.
Last week, Smiechowski contacted the San Diego Police Department's Internal Affairs Unit and said he wanted to file a complaint. He said he was told that the officers acted properly and there were no grounds for a complaint. But he persisted, and on Monday he got a call from the Northern Division lieutenant who told him that the incident would be investigated and he'd let Smiechowski know the outcome.
Some people might be able to brush off an experience like Smiechowski's—it all depends on your orientation with authority and how much value you place on being seen as a law-abiding citizen.
“I was treated like a second-class citizen,” Smiechowski said.
At 54, he's a sensitive guy. He chokes up when he talks about his father, a Polish immigrant who embraced American democracy and political involvement.
“Don't mistake emotion for weakness,” he said.
In journalism, editors will tell you that if you've got three of something, you might just have a story. On Feb. 6, a CityBeat co-worker had his car impounded for temporary registration that was four days expired (once temporary registration expires, an officer looks at when the car's official registration expired; so, in this case, my co-worker exceeded the six-month grace period). It was 1 a.m. and he was 10 blocks from home. The officer refused to give him a ride (Smiechowski at least got a ride home). He had to come up with $295 to get his car out, too.
Last Saturday, a friend of mine, a marriage-and-family therapist (who asked that I not use her name) was stopped by a police officer a few blocks from her house for expired tags. Her driver's license was expired, too. In her defense, she's been struggling to start up a private practice and recover from a back injury that's left her unable to move without pain. Amid those two things, some responsibilities fell to the side.
The officer asked for her insurance paperwork. Because of her back, she moves slowly and couldn't find the paperwork right away. The officer gave her only a couple of minutes, she said, and told her time was up and she needed to get out of the car and remove everything in it.
“There was no conversation,” she told me. “‘Get out of the car; give me your keys.'”
At one point he was standing too close to her, she felt, so she asked him to step back. He wouldn't. “I don't know you; I don't know what you might do,” he told her.
“He treated me like a criminal; he was so rigid,” she said. She begged him not to tow her car—she had an appointment for an MRI on Sunday and six clients scheduled for Monday. She told him she'd go to the DMV Monday morning and take care of her license and registration. He didn't acknowledge anything she said, she told me.
Rulette Armstead, a former assistant police chief who currently teaches law-enforcement administration at San Diego State University, was surprised by the complaints—for the last two decades, she said, the department has operated under the philosophy of community-oriented policing.
“Part of that theory and that philosophy is that you really try to develop a rapport with people in the community—that you're very sensitive, that you're very caring,” she said. “And it doesn't mean that you're soft on crime but that you're certainly sensitive when it comes to stopping people and taking enforcement action.”
Sometimes a subject's behavior can escalate a situation. But, Armstead said, “it doesn't excuse a police officer from being unprofessional. You can start a contact in a certain way, but if you're well-trained, you can, a lot of times, salvage that contact and make it a positive contact.”
The same night she was pulled over, my therapist friend ran into a couple of police officers who were responding to a noise complaint at her apartment complex. She asked them how they would have handled the situation if either of them had pulled her over. They asked to see her ticket and she showed them. They told her that the officer who wrote it was their sergeant and that they would have handled things no differently. She asked if they were required to attend counseling—she suggested it might be helpful in assessing situations and communicating more effectively with people. She told them she felt the sergeant had displayed “no insight whatsoever.”
“Therapy is only for crazy people,” one of the officers told her, circling his finger around his temple, the universal gesture signifying lunacy. She got upset and told them that they, too, lacked insight, and she started to walk away.
As she did, the same officer started chanting “Crazy, crazy.”