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My Encounter With British Police In a Kinder/Gentler Time
Pulled Over While Trying to Help
Years ago-- far too many years ago-- I went back to England, traveling and visiting relatives I hadn't seen since I was five. I was lucky enough to not only see the sights but actually experience everyday life in the country of my birth.
I spent quite a bit of time staying with my cousin, her husband and their young son in the Black Country town of Halesowen. There's nothing ethnic about the Black Country; it's called that because, during the Industrial Revolution, the coal-fired furnaces covered everything with soot. People even forged chain in their back gardens. There wasn't a tourist in sight. I loved it.
One day my cousin's husband (I'll call him Moss), who had arranged an appointment to get their car fixed, was called in unexpectedly to work and asked if I could drive the car to the mechanic for him. The car's muffler was shot, but was otherwise drivable. I loaded the new muffler into the trunk and roared off across town, pleased to help and glad to get a rare chance to drive on the wrong side of the road. As I approached the center of town, I saw the flashing lights of a police car in the rear-view mirror and wondered which of the many laws I knew nothing about I had violated. Right and left turns required conscious thought but I was pretty sure I'd stayed on the correct side of the road. I turned the engine off and, in the deafening silence, figured out what drew the officer's attention.
Separated By a Common Language
Not knowing the proper protocol, I got out of the car and waited as he approached.
“You know why I pulled you over?”
I nodded and said, “It makes a lot of noise, I know. But I was just on the way to get it fixed.”
He looked at me skeptically.
“No, really. I've got the muffler in the trunk.”
He looked at me quizzically.
“Here, I'll show you.” I opened up the trunk and showed him the brand new muffler.
He smiled. “Ah. You've got the silencer in the boot.”
It took a few seconds for me to realize he wasn't accusing me of carrying a concealed weapon and a few more to realize I'd probably told him I had the scarf in the suitcase. And, of course, I couldn't produce the required documentation, other than my license, which elicited another bemused look. I obviously wasn't a hardened criminal, other than being a foreigner, so he took down all the information I could provide and gave me a ticket. Moss and I would have to show up at the police station within the next couple days.
“They can sort it out,” he said cheerfully and went on his way.
When Moss got home from work, the car was fixed and I told him not to worry, I'd pay the fine-- it was just bad luck. But he said it would be a lot more than a noise violation; he had no MOT-- basically, mandatory car insurance-- because, in order to get the MOT, the car had to pass inspection which the bad muffler (silencer) would have failed. Now the police would find out he'd been driving a car without the MOT-- a far more serious charge and one that could put his job in jeopardy since he was a transport driver.
Two nights later, we approached the station. The plan was to plead for mercy and play the starving family/stupid foreigner card.
Helping The Police With Their Enquiries
It was a slow night at the station; the desk sergeant gave us his full attention while another officer puttered around. Moss explained why we were there, not volunteering anything about MOT's or starving families. The stupid foreigner handed over the ticket and the sergeant got to work. He asked for my license and I duly handed it to him. He looked at it and turned it over and turned it over again.
“It's my Iowa driver license.” I've since learned that a British driver's license is more of a little booklet; mine looked like a library card.
His eyebrows arched as he studied it. I didn't know how I could readily prove it was a real driver's license-- as far as I knew, it was legal to drive in England on my license, but it was getting warmer in the station.
The sergeant started writing on a form.
“All right. So, you're an American, then.” He filled in a box.
“Uh, no,” I repressed the urge to add 'your honor'. “Actually, I was born here in England-- Birmingham, actually.” Had I said 'actually' twice?
He crossed something out, wrote something else.
“British, then. Ex-pat.” Moss was starting to perspire. The other officer wandered over.
“My, uh, father had me nationalized as a Canadian.” I added, miserably, “He was born in Canada.”
The sergeant stared at me and said, “You were born in England, live in the States and you're a Canadian citizen.”
He looked at me for a few more seconds and then got another form and started over. Moss, on an inspiration, offered cigarettes all around. We all took one and lit up. The sergeant told the other officer, who was enjoying the show and his cigarette to find some kind of book from the back. The sergeant continued to write on the new form, transcribing more information from my license. He repeated my name and my address and asked if that was all correct. I panicked-- having forgotten that my address was no longer right-- and told the truth. He scratched my address out and waited for me to tell him what my address really was.
“You see, that was my parent's address and since I've been over here, they've moved.” I really didn't want to continue disappointing this man, but there was nothing I could do. “And I don't know what their new address is.”
He looked at me as if to say, “I wouldn't have expected anything else”, turned his head and told the officer to get a different book. Moss, perhaps feeling that a little levity might be appropriate, asked whether I would be allowed to leave the country. The sergeant looked back at the officer struggling with another bulky book and said, “It would probably be best if he didn't.”
After that, Moss and I waited in that hot, hot station while the sergeant and the officer murmured between themselves and more books were consulted. I passed cigarettes around; all partook. Finally, the sergeant announced that there was nothing more that could be done that night and we would be informed in a week or two of the outcome. Moss and I departed into the cool dark night.
A week later, I received an official packet from Her Majesty's police that all charges had been dropped. I was free to go. The subject of Moss' MOT had never come up.