I was bombing along Highway 190 through Death Valley in my new, slightly used car, overwhelmed by the spare beauty of the place when I passed a California Highway Patrol SUV coming in the opposite direction.
I noted in my rear view mirror that the driver hooked a U-turn as soon as we passed.
“Uh-oh,” I thought.
Sure enough, she came up on my rear with her lights on. I pulled my little wagon over.
CHP officer Krista McKray-Sullivan walked up to my passenger side. I rolled down the window, flustered, because the car was still registered in the previous owner’s name, and the only document I had to prove the car was mine was a handwritten bill of sale. I had not yet received my insurance card in the mail.
She was patient while I explained and scrambled for the old registration and bill of sale, then went through my email to find my insurance policy proof.
“Did you know you were going 88 mph?” she asked.
“I did not,” I replied. “I was so taken by the scenery, I guess I didn’t realize I was going so fast.”
“Isn’t your speed shown in big numbers right there?” she asked, pointing to the dashboard.
Touche there, officer.
“Are you here for work or for pleasure?” she asked.
“I’m working,” I told her. “Covering the Badwater Ultramarathon for the L.A. Times.”
“Well, if you’re working,” she said, “then what’s your rush?”
Boy, was she good at this.
She asked me to roll up my passenger window. When it was halfway up, she said, “OK, that’s enough. I’m ticketing you for your tinted front windows.”
“Are you kidding?” I asked. “Do you just sit there and pick off drivers with tinted windows all day long?”
“Only if they’re going 88 mph,” she said dryly, and handed me a ticket.
Just about every state in the union, it turns out, has laws about tinted car windows.
In California, it’s illegal to tint either windshield (except for the strip at the very top), and the windows next to the driver and front-seat passenger. Back-seat windows can have a tint. Tints ensure privacy and help keep interiors safe from sun damage.
After my fix-it ticket, I became obsessed with car windows. Every other car on the highway, it seemed, had illegal, tinted front windows. Lucky for them, they were going the speed limit.
“It’s everywhere,” said California Highway Patrol spokesman Officer Mike Martis when I reached him in Sacramento the other day. “We only have so many officers, and a lot of times we’re responding to collisions and can’t stop for tinted windows.”
When people do get pulled over for illegal windows, he said, “often times they are surprised because they’ve been driving around for 25 years with no problem and they feel like we are picking on them.”
According to the CHP, from January 2015 through the end of August of this year, a total of 193,025 tickets were issued to drivers for violating the California law that forbids tinted windows.
Not all of those tickets, Martis said, were simple “fix-its.” If, for instance, a driver named Joe gets popped for tinted windows, removes the tint, gets the ticket signed off on, puts the tint back on and gets popped again, the officer can issue a “non-correctable” ticket.
“This means that Joe can’t have it signed off by an officer,” Martis said. “He will have to go to court and explain the matter to the judge.”
In Death Valley, where the sun was relentless and the temperature reached 120 during the day, having tinted side windows, which kept the front seat cooler, was a boon.
But in the city, at night, I had noticed, having tinted windows was not so great. Visibility is seriously reduced. Left turns can be kind of harrowing.
In the downtown Arts District one night, en route to a late dinner, I nearly mowed down a pedestrian in a black sweatshirt who was crossing in front of me as I turned left onto a darkened street.
That did it.
I opened my laptop the next morning and Googled “How to untint car windows.”
Which led me to Adan Hernandez of Nick’s Glass Tinting on Lincoln Boulevard in Santa Monica.
Hernandez was alone in his small shop when I arrived last week for my appointment.
A cheerful 18-year-old, he graduated last year from high school in Santa Monica. He became full-fledged partners in January with his father, Nick, who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico and started the business here in the late 1990s. When the shop first opened, rent was $600. It’s $3,500 a month now.
I gasped. How on Earth can you make a decent living with rent that high, I asked. Hernandez told me things can be tight, but they make a decent living. “We’ve been here so long, and we don’t have to pay employees because we do it ourselves,” he said. “And we love our jobs.”
Most of his customers spend $200 to $300 to get their windows tinted.
Hernandez demonstrated the process for me: First, he cleans the window, then lays a film of tinted carbon film against the glass. He cuts the window shape with a blade, and uses a hot air gun to shrink the tinted sheet against the window’s curves. He peels the tint off to finesse the corners with his knife. The tint goes back on the window, and he smooths out the bubbles with a plastic straight-edged tool.
And that’s it.
Even though it is illegal to have tinted windows, window tinting businesses are perfectly legit.
“They’re allowed to be in business,” CHP officer Martis told me. “Some people need tints and get notes from their doctor because they have an eye or skin condition.”
Customers, however, must sign waivers, assuming all legal liability. There are some jobs Hernandez will refuse; he will not tint brake lights, as some customers have requested. And he won’t put a super dark tint on a windshield.
He’s got a few scofflaw customers who bring their cars in to have tints removed, then come back later to have them re-applied.
It cost $40 to have my tint removed. Hernandez offered me a discount should I decide to tint the windows again.
That is very tempting.
Just kidding, CHP.