Discretion - The Art of Law Enforcement

Just last week I was patrolling on Highway 7 about 50 miles west of Minneapolis. I stopped a car for expired registration and a seat belt violation. I could only see the top of the driver’s head as he had his seat kicked so far back.

He told me that he did not have a driver’s license and never has. He spoke in broken English and looked frazzled. I asked if he had any identification and he gave me his Visa card. The card had a name on it. I asked, “Where are you from?” I expected him to say Minnesota, but he candidly replied, “Mexico.” I asked if he was a legal citizen, and he said “no.”

The car did not register to him and his female passenger told me his name was something different than what he gave me. I ran the name he gave me (same as on the Visa card) and his date of birth on my computer. It showed that there was no one with that name and date of birth with a license in Minnesota, but it showed that his driving privileges were classified as “Revoked” because of a DWI he got a year ago. “What should I do?” I asked myself.

police-officer-day-in-the-lifeDiscretion simply means choice, that’s all.  As a police officer, I have to make many choices. We are limited by law and our department policy, but, to be honest, often times real police work becomes an art of tapping into your common sense. This driver was very cooperative and polite.

I could have handled the situation in multiple ways. I could have cleared the perpetrator, after all, he had little money and, though he is here illegally, he is only trying to find a better life. I could have just dropped him at the gas station and towed the car and issued him a ticket for driving after legal offenses. But would that be wise of me? Does his track record speak for itself? He broke the law to get here, he drives while revoked and he is a grown adult with no identification. I still don’t know that the name he gave me was his. Is it reasonable to trust him to show up in court?  All these questions ran through my head in a matter of minutes.

What should I have done?  As a police officer I value discretion, but I also have my duty to uphold the law. What would you do if you were a state trooper in this situation?

Here’s what I did. The passenger had a Minnesota ID with a local address, but no license to drive. I called a tow truck. We called the woman’s mother to come and get her (after I issued her a ticket for drug paraphernalia). I arrested the driver for driving after revocation and drove him to the county jail so that I could get photos and fingerprints because he had no ID.  I booked him on the misdemeanor for DAR and called the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent in Minnesota. I gave the phone to my prisoner and he spoke with the ICE agent. He handed the phone back to me and I spoke to the agent. I was told that he had established that, indeed, my driver had entered the country illegally and that an ICE “detainer” would be faxed to the jail within 15 minutes. It was. This detainer said there was a hold placed on my prisoner saying that when his business with the local court was finished, ICE would come pick him up to be processed for likely deportation.

This was a lot of work. There were many points along the way that I could have used my police discretion to tweak department policy, take short cuts or even turn a blind eye to the violation – and no one would be any the wiser.  But I am bound by something else, my oath as a police officer to enforce the law fairly. I do not take that oath lightly. I believe that the art of law enforcement could be defined by an officer’s ability to achieve a balance of being firm, yet compassionate, of adherence to the law with an eye toward a reasonable outcome for the violator of that law.  I believe we are a nation of laws and our concern for border security does not end at the border.

Criminal justice is about fairness. To this old road dog, that means that sometimes some awfully nice people go to jail and sometimes some pretty snotty and despicable sorts – get off with a warning.  Did I use proper discretion with the gentleman I arrested on Hwy 7? Did I achieve fairness?  I think I did, or I would not have done it that way.

Jim Nielsen

This article was written by Jim Nielsen, adjunct instructor for Rasmussen College Online, where he teaches in the criminal justice college degree program. In addition to instructing at Rasmussen College, he works as a police officer in Minnesota.

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