Driving an old, beat-up car could get a little more nerve-racking in Oklahoma, where a proposed law would allow officers to pull someone over for not having car insurance.
The bill, which has been approved by an Oklahoma House committee, has privacy advocates worried. They fear that without objective criteria for stopping drivers, law enforcement officers will focus on poor people whose older cars may give the impression that the drivers are unlikely to have auto insurance.
Currently, Oklahoma police can check license plate numbers against an existing state proof-of-insurance database, which uses information gathered from insurance companies. But police cannot stop the driver unless he or she commits another offense.
The bill's author, state Rep. Steve Martin, says his bill would allow police to make a traffic stop if they find the car is uninsured, making it a "primary" reason for a probable cause stop. Current law makes driving without insurance secondary offense, citable only after a driver is pulled over for a primary reason such as speeding.
One in four drivers in Oklahoma is uninsured, according to the Insurance Research Council. (See "Can you legally drive without insurance?")
Under the proposed law, drivers with paper proof of insurance that conflicts with the database could not be cited during the stop. Martin plans an amendment to allow an officer to further investigate and mail drivers a ticket if the investigation finds they don't have insurance.
One more reason to pull you over
Martin says he doesn't know what criteria police would use to run a license plate to determine if a driver might not have insurance. But he added that even under existing law, police could find a reason to pull someone over if they follow them long enough.
"If a car looks like it might not have insurance, they run the tag," he says. "He could be bored. He could just be bored, and he runs your tag number."
License plate tags are run "all the time" and arbitrarily to check for warrants or a stolen car, says Officer Jason Willingham of the Tulsa Police Department. "There's no rhyme or reason why. It's just what officers do," Willingham says.
It's not profiling the car or driver, he says, but instead is one of the best ways to fight crime.
How old the car looks isn't a factor, says Maj. Rusty Rhoades of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. He adds that while getting uninsured drivers off the road is important, making it a reason for a primary stop may not be the best use of resources.
"It's not like we have the time to be searching for this," he says.
Safety issue or a civil rights minefield?
Allowing a license plate scan by police who presume you're breaking the law because you have an old car is bad public policy, says Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Oklahoma. Because there are no objective criteria, an officer will use subjective criteria such as racial profiling to decide which cars to target, he says.
"Most Oklahomans don't want to live in a police state where they're under constant surveillance," Kiesel says.
The bill raises concerns about privacy, violates the Fourth Amendment's right against unreasonable searches and seizures, and is a slippery slope leading to profiling of poor drivers, he says, adding that the ACLU plans to oppose the bill.
Scanning a license plate isn't a violation of privacy because the state owns the license plate, says Lt. Thomas Lynch of the Police Department in Franklin, Mass., a state that allows police to pull over uninsured drivers as a primary offense.
In Franklin, high-speed cameras in police cars can scan two to three license plates per second, and uninsured driver "hits" are confirmed with a dispatcher who checks a state database before the driver is pulled over, Lynch says.
Martin says his bill would actually help poor people most because they have more to lose if their car is hit by an uninsured driver.
"This is a regressive situation," Martin says. "The poorer you are, the bigger victim you are of being hit by an uninsured motorist."
A bare-bones liability-only policy that meets state requirements -- the kind many low-income people buy -- would not cover a collision caused by an uninsured driver. (See "The cheapest insurance possible.")
The fine is just the start
Vehicles without car insurance in Massachusetts can be towed and impounded, and violators can face up to a year in jail, up to $5,000 in fines, and a license suspension for up to 60 days. Oklahoma's penalties aren't as steep, with a $250 fine and -- in a change that took effect in 2010 -- impoundment at the officer's discretion.
The Highway Patrol told the Tulsa World that the impound law, also sponsored by Martin, has resulted in the towing of 10 to 15 cars a week for insurance violations in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, the state's two largest cities.
Drivers trying to regain their cars and good standing will find the going expensive. Major insurance companies are reluctant to offer standard rates to drivers who have let a policy lapse. More than likely, such drivers face at least six months with a high-risk or nonstandard carrier, paying more for the privilege.
You'll probably have to ask your insurance company to file an SR-22 form with the state for the next few years as well, guaranteeing that you have the legally required coverage in place. (See "SR-22: What you need to know.")