Can I disobey a cop who orders me to break the law?

I have a legal question, born from a personal experience, I’d like the Teeming Millions to shine their legal wisdom upon.

I recently began riding my bicycle to work (after having not ridden for many a moon) to save on gas $. I rode on the sidewalk to avoid traffic. After several weeks of this, a traffic cop pulled up next to me and told me I needed to ride in the road, not the sidewalk, as a bike was considered a vehicle. Like a good citizen, I obeyed, and began riding on the road shoulder. This turned out to be a terrible idea, as inattentive or apathetic drivers had no qualms about zipping by with inches to spare, and giving me several heart attacks per trip. Determined to establish my presence on the road, I began riding several feet out from the shoulder, forcing cars to pass me legally, as they would a slower driver. This plan worked fairly well (despite pissing off any number of impatient drivers) until I was once again pulled over by yet another cop, this time for impeding traffic. You can imagine my frustration when he told me I needed to ride on the sidewalk, and ignored my protests at this flipfloppery. I promptly went to the webs to find out for myself, and discovered the first cop was wrong - local law stated I was required to ride on the sidewalk if no bike lane was present in the road.

OK, so, one long anecdote later, here’s the question: did I have the legal right to disobey the first officer? In other words, do you have the right to openly ignore or resist an officer who orders you to break the law? And if you do, does the officer have the right to arrest you?

Milgram experiments aside, I think most folks with common-sense would agree I have the right to resist if an officer ordered me to break a more serious law, like say, kill someone. But my situation doesn’t seem trivial in retrospect. What if the officer’s order had directly resulted in my becoming road pizza? Being ignorant sucks, being dead sucks worse. Especially when one leads to the other. Help!

  • Burt from Georgia

Do you have the secret service protecting you, and your bodyguards have the police officer held at gunpoint? If the answer is no, then no, you do not have the right to disobey.
Your best chance is to say yes officer, no officer, am I free to go, hands at 10 and 2, no sudden moves. You live in a police state where the police are trained to fear for their lives all of the time.

Oh, regarding the sidewalk - yes the sidewalk is safer in redneck states. There’s bullshit studies that claim it’s more dangerous but I don’t believe them - anyone with eyes can see the number of potential risky crossings, where cars zoom by you at 40 mph while you try to ride in the narrow debris filled gutter, is far more dangerous. You can also hit the curb or a piece of debris, and if you do, you may fall over/be thrown from your bike and end up sprawled across the road, one inattentive driver from death.

If you are on the sidewalk, none of these risks are present. You may get hit at low speed - more hits under 18mph don’t cause crippling injuries/death - but you can just watch each driveway intersection and other intersection between the sidewalk and road, and don’t cross when there is anyone there.

I never depend on another driver as a cyclist, I always make my crossings where there is no driver who has the option of hitting me. I only cross in front of a car if I know they saw me, they gesture to me, and the intersection is crowded so I can’t wait for it to be clear.

Has this sort of thing ever went to trial?

I would imagine that this sort of silliness would get sorted out at the time of booking and/or arraignment, and the “offender” would be sent on their way and the cop told to go read the statute book again.

Not addressing the actual question, but

That is a very strange local law, and at odds with most state laws (which local laws must comply with). For instance, if you are in Georgia, you might check out: Georgia Bicycle Traffic Laws

I think you intuitively figured out that the problem with hugging the curb/shoulder is that it invites unsafe passing. Take the lane until it is safe. Check out: Bicycling Street Smarts
Back to what to do when a cop tells you to do something that you do not believe is legal. Bottom line, do what the guy with the gun, handcuffs and lots of backup tells you to do, unless you think the consequences of doing that are going to be worse than being arrested (and possibly beaten or shot). Though, depending on how urgent he seems to be, there’s often opportunity for polite discussion, which often works better if you start off by conceding his authority. “Well, officer, I’m going to do whatever you ask of course. But my impression is that <state> traffic laws prohibit sidewalk bicycling. I’m just trying to do what’s least dangerous for everyone and comply with the traffic laws.”

Well, the best strategy is probably to print out the statute or town by-law and carry it with you. Then, if a cop stops you, show it to him and ask, very politely, if there’s possibly some mistake with your interpretation of the law.

From a practical point of view, the biggest problem with sidewalks is driveway entrances – generally, check to see if the driveway is clear, but don’t expect people or bikes to be moving fast enough to run into them once they commit to a turn.

I once got reamed out by a jogger who nearly ran into the side of my car while I was turning into a parking lot. It seemed like a gray area to me – no one was in the entrance when I looked and if you’re moving fast enough to run into a vehicle, you should probably look both ways.

If I was in your shoes I would nicely ask the cop to cite the law/regulation regarding where you can and can’t ride a bicycle in your jurisdiction. He should know the laws well enough to be able to tell you the exact law he thinks you are breaking. I would have a printout with you of the official law which you have looked up yourself, but you better be darn sure your information is up to date.

Assuming it is different than what he is saying I would hand over the information and ask him politely to contact his supervisor to get it straightened out, and that you want to hear the conversation between the two. At that point the cop will hand you your paperwork back, get back in his car and drive away. He doesn’t have time to deal with someone who has done their homework and appears to know more about the law than he does…

Printout? Bah. That’s disobedience. Just say “sorry, didn’t know, officer, my bad. I felt safer on the sidewalk”.

Then, the moment you are out of view/not about to encounter the officer again, back to the sidewalk.

Sure, you absolutely have the legal right to disobey the police officer’s illegal command. He can’t tell you to do anything illegal. But unfortunately, he definitely has the right to stop you to investigate what he believes in good faith is a violation of the law even if you aren’t actually breaking the law. See Heien v. North Carolina (2015). North Carolina law only requires that a car have one working tail light and doesn’t make it illegal to drive with a broken one. But the police officer was allowed to pull over a car for having one broken tail light among several working ones. That led to the driver consenting to a search where drugs were found. This case doesn’t resolve whether a police officer can arrest you solely for his mistaken belief that you violated the law but my guess is that yes, he could.

Your redress would be to have the case dismissed in court after arrest, booking, arraignment (depending on the state), and a motion for dismissal by your defense counsel. It would be a phyrric victory though, because the arresting jurisdiction and the police officer would benefit from sovereign immunity in the case; you probably couldn’t sue them for any sort of mistaken arrest (this would depend on the state).

It’s also no defense that he told you to break the law. Plus, it’s not clear to me that he did tell you to break the law. He wasn’t making you bike on the street; he was telling you to not ride it on the sidewalk. You had the alternative of not riding your bike at all. How do you get away without getting a bogus citation or arrest? You walk the bike to your destination on the sidewalk. It’s not satisfying, but at least you don’t get arrested or cited.

It’s really not a gray area. You have to look out for pedestrians, all of them, even when they are moving faster than you expect them to be moving. He didn’t nearly run into the side of your car; you nearly hit him while he was jogging on the sidewalk. How about he agrees to look out for cars when he’s in the street and you agree to look out for pedestrians when you’re crossing a sidewalk, which is what happens when you pull into an entrance? It’s the kind of mistake that could happen to any driver and I’m sure it’s happened to me, but your driving won’t get better if you try to deflect the blame rather than looking for chances to improve.

Possibly true, but if you are involved in a collision while riding on the sidewalk, it will be your fault. Cars are not required/expected to see bicycles riding on the sidewalk or crosswalk. If you are riding on the sidewalk then at every corner you are “entering the roadway” and would be required to yield to traffic.

Just going from your description and not having seen the road myself, it sounds like you made a mistake there. The cop told you to ride “in the road” and you yourself say you began riding “on the road shoulder”. That’s not the same thing.

If there’s a white stripe on the right hand edge of the road, dividing the traffic lanes from the shoulder, the proper place to ride a bicycle is to the LEFT of the white stripe, but as close to the stripe as practicable (meaning the best you can do safely, considering such things as debris, et cetera). If, for whatever reason, it’s unsafe for you to hug the white stripe, you are expected to ride in the center of the traffic lane, just as if you’re a car or a motorcycle or a hay wagon and then move to the right when it’s safe to do so or when you want to let another vehicle pass you.

If there isn’t a white stripe but there’s a gutter and a curb, the proper place to ride a bicycle is to the LEFT of the gutter, but as close to the gutter as practicable.

Please note that I’m assuming here that you are riding on the right, going in the same direction as all the other traffic does. If you’re on a one-way street, you have the option of riding on the left, which would be mirror image of what I said above.

I agree with Quercus, this sounds very strange to me. Can you give us a link to this local law you’re talking about? I’ve seen plenty of laws that FORBID riding on sidewalks, and I have never seen one that REQUIRES it. The closest thing I can think of is that if the sidewalk is designated as a bike path, there might be a law requiring you to use the path. But that wouldn’t apply to sidewalks in general. I’d love to see this crazy law you’re talking about.

One thing that annoys me as a pedestrian is many bicyclists show the same lack of courtesy to pedestrians on the sidewalk as they’re shown by motorists on the road. Of course, many of those bicyclists are just kids, but it’s annoying all the same.

Safer for the cyclist- maybe. But how about the kid or senior citizen or small dog who gets run over by a cyclist going 30MPH?

This is exactly why pedestrians and drivers often hate cyclist- they are selfish to an extreme. Whatever is best for them is all that’s important, fuck everyone else. That little kid playing on the sidewalk- well he should be in the park dammit, and stay out of my way!:rolleyes:

Stay off the fucking sidewalk if you have a vehicle. If you are 8yo and ride a pink bike at about walking speed, then you get a pass.

In SF along the Embarcadero there are bike lanes on both sides but the assholes use the sidewalks instead- they put one kid & one grandma in the hospital, and killed one small dog on a leash. In just a few months.

Welcome to the SDMB.

First, be quite sure your understanding of the law is correct. Second, contact the police department and/or city hall and be sure your understanding is the same as theirs. Printing out the relevant law is a good idea.

Third, the next time an officer stops you when you are doing what is legal, tell him you have checked, and that you are following the law. You don’t have to be an ass about it. Worst case scenario is that you get a ticket*, which will be overturned. Then you carry the paperwork showing that the ticket was overturned, and show it to the next officer who stops you.

The idea that he will shoot you or beat you up for not kowtowing to him is more than mildly ridiculous.

Basically, what dolphinboy says.


*Yes, you should not get a ticket if you are not in the wrong. Yes, sometimes police make mistakes. No, that does not mean you should resist arrest or threaten to have his badge taken away or even be rude.

Exceptwhen it happens. But sure, ridiculous most of the time.

You know I’ve never really understood the whole biking on the road thing under certain circumstances. If biking is your only means of conveyance to get to and from work then granted I understand that and it is your legal right. But for the people just wanting to get exercise it just doesn’t seem worth the risk to me when you could just bike on a trail or something. Sure you have the legal right to do it but do you really not worry about getting smashed by some asshole driver into a pulpy mess? Granted some cities are more bike-friendly than others but for the OP it sounds like this is not the case and besides which gas is incredibly cheap right now. It sucks for bicyclists and even motorcyclists too but the reality is that there are tons of asshole drivers out there that don’t look out for bicyclists or even do things like drive dangerously close to them just to fuck with them just because they can.

It’s not an either-or thing. Some people have places to go, and choose to go there via bike instead of car because they want the exercise or recreation. And of course, there are those you mention for whom it’s purely practical. But of those people who are riding purely for recreation, most of them either are on bike trails, or they’re staying close to home because the bike trails are inconveniently far away for them.

In most jurisdictions I am aware of, riding on sidewalks is prohibited. Sidewalks are for pedestrians. Now if a kid is on the sidewalk on his trike, I don’t mind. There is a railway overpass I regularly cross. It is four lane, divided and the lanes aren’t any too wide either. There is a sidewalk on one side and I use that. I realize the roadway is dangerous for bikes, but they could walk their bikes on the sidewalk. Instead they come up behind me and pass at top speed (especially on the down path) and scream if I am blocking their way. I try to keep as far away from the road as possible, but the sidewalk is quite narrow and I am in constant fear that I will stumble or something and get by an asshole on a bike. Of course, they will probably be thrown onto the roadway and get hit. It is heavily trafficked. As a driver, I try to be careful of cyclists, but as a pedestrian I hate them.

My local sidewalk / roadway setup is similar to this:

The bike lane is not obvious (like the red-colored one in the photo), but the sidewalks are extra wide and divided by trees. Most of my run has designated in-the-road bike lanes, except for a few areas that look like that. The town website shows a map with highlighted bike lanes, which continue thru these unmarked areas on the road-side of the divided sidewalk. I’ll have to hunt for a painted mark or sign as proof, but it’s clear in retrospect that there is a continuous bike lane which occasionally comes off the road.

In reading my question, I was over-generous using the term ‘sidewalk’. It’s actually a conventional marked bike lane in the road, which occasionally blends into a multi-use, divided bike lane & sidewalk. The local statute doesn’t mandate ‘you have to use the sidewalk’, rather ‘when it’s present, you have to use the bike lane, whether it’s in the road or not’. Come to think of it, I know Cop #2 was a local, but Cop #1 may have been GA State Patrol… I wasn’t aware Georgia state law forbade riding on conventional sidewalks. That would actually go a long way toward explaining the difference of opinion between the two officers.

Regardless, I was more interested in the legal concept: an individual charged with enforcing the law using his/her authority to compel others to break it. To this end, thanks ‘Tired and Cranky’ for your response - it makes sense that a mistaken officer acting in good faith would have the right to enforce his/her incorrect ‘perception’ of the law, which would be cleared up later in the legal processing. Naturally, being polite and obeying the guy with the gun go a long way towards smoothing out such conflicts, as it did in my case.