Traffic Stops--Tickets to Surprises


It began as another routine traffic stop--a car without a license plate--and ended up in the capture of Oklahoma City bombing suspect Timothy J. McVeigh.

Police don’t expect to snag America’s most wanted every day, but they regularly stop motorists for broken taillights or expired registration tags and stumble upon drugs, guns, stolen property and even bodies.

Last week, sheriff’s deputies in Whittier spotted a car with an expired registration tag and ended up recovering $15,000 in stolen money and arresting four bank robbery suspects. California Highway Patrol officers last year found protected desert tortoises--you guessed it--in a car that was traveling too slow.


“Some of the best police work comes out of routine traffic stops,” LAPD spokesman Cmdr. Tim McBride said.

Serial killers Ted Bundy and Randy Kraft were caught during traffic stops. Kraft, sentenced to Death Row in 1989 for 16 Orange County murders, was caught when officers found a dead Marine propped up in the passenger seat after stopping the car on the San Diego Freeway.

LAPD officers in 1985 stopped Richard Ramirez--the man later convicted of being the Night Stalker--for a minor traffic violation and let him go with a citation, although he was captured a few days later. Then Police Chief Daryl F. Gates refused to blame the officers, saying the drawing of the suspect was not particularly accurate.

“We stop to help people whose cars break down, and it turns out they have somebody dead in the car,” CHP Sgt. Mike Teixiera said. “We probably get more murderers stopping them for speeding than we do by looking for them.”

The number of officers slain over the years during traffic stops serves as a painful reminder of the danger of pulling over a car for even a minor infraction.

“There is no such thing as a routine traffic stop because you never know what you have,” LAPD Sgt. Steven Nielsen said.


One of the most famous traffic stops in history--the one that led to the police beating of Rodney G. King--has made officers more cautious when making traffic stops. Some LAPD officers, fearful of being falsely accused of misconduct, carry personal tape recorders to document their actions during traffic stops.

No figures are kept on how many traffic stops turn up criminal activity. But more than half of the police pursuits in California start out over traffic violations and end up in felony arrests, the CHP reports.

While one would expect criminals to diligently obey traffic laws to avoid detection, Marcus Felson, a sociology professor at USC and Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice, said traffic violations are an extension of criminals’ lack of self-control.

“People who get into one kind of trouble also get into another,” Felson said, citing a high correlation between traffic problems and crime. “They’re not stupid. . . . They lack focus.”

CHP Commissioner Maury Hannigan said criminals become “preoccupied with what they’re trying to get away with. They’re not the smartest people in the world or they wouldn’t be engaged in crime.”

Hannigan said traffic stops are increasingly turning up loaded guns in cars. “It’s somewhat frightening,” he said.


They also are turning up a lot of drugs.

In Riverside County last year, officers pulled over a motorist for not displaying a front license plate and discovered 392 kilos of cocaine inside the vehicle. Two accomplices were arrested after the driver’s pager beeped during the arrest, alerting investigators to the location of the other suspects.

“You’d be surprised over how many people, you ask them for their registration, they open the glove compartment and drugs fall out,” LAPD Sgt. Dan Jimenez said. “ ‘I forgot that was there,’ that’s what I’ve heard.”

CHP officers pulled over a motorist in the Southern California desert for driving 105 m.p.h. The driver said he was running out of gas and wanted to build up enough speed so he could coast into Needles, CHP Officer Kevin Martin said. The reason he was running out of gas, the officer said, was that half of the tank was filled with cocaine.

It isn’t unusual, Martin said, for officers to stop a car for a routine traffic violation and find $200,000 or $300,000 in drug money in the car.

After making traffic stops, officers often spot problems right away--guns or drugs in plain view on car seats, for example.

Nielsen recalls capturing a murder suspect when he spotted the eight-inch barrel of a gun sticking out from under the car seat.


Officers’ suspicions are aroused by things that just don’t look right--like a ski mask on the front seat.

Or sometimes, things don’t smell right. After flagging down a driver for not wearing a seat belt, CHP officers in the Inland Empire noticed a stench inside the car. Officers found a trunk containing shrimp, which had been dumped there to mask the smell of cocaine. But the shrimp had gone bad in the heat and had left a putrid smell.

Sometimes, their suspicions will be raised just by asking a question. In McVeigh’s case, Oklahoma state trooper Charlie Hanger became suspicious when the suspect, hunched in a jacket, said he was on a cross-country trip and planned to drive 10 hours or so. The trooper knew that most people take off their jacket when they drive long distances. When McVeigh leaned over to get his wallet, Hanger saw a bulge, which turned out to be a 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol.