how common, if at all, is police damaging a car to then punish the owner for it?

sort of like damaging the headlight and then imposing a fine for the missing headlight. Are there allegations of such behavior floating around? Does anybody keep statistics?

Anecdotal at best, and statistically non-significant, but a few of the more police- provoking rough boys I used to hang out with back in the day did find themselves in such situations.

The problem will always be determining reliably when such a thing has happened. If police did it, they are highly motivated to deny it. If they did not, it is obvious that the driver who claims they did it is highly motivated (to avoid the fine) to falsely assert that they did.

If police do not do this but there are lots of allegations of it, that is likely to be as a result of a local “fashion” to make the allegation against them which can vary over time. A spike in allegations does not necessarily mean that the allegations are true, nor that all of them are true, nor that they are false.

In short, this is an area where allegation is cheap and evidence is expensive.

could somebody examine statistics of fines for smashed headlights (or any similar easily sabotaged components) by geography and by reporting officer? Could we then find statistically significant anomalies in this manner and then ask the motorists involved if they accuse the officer of sabotage? Is this kind of info available from police databases freely or under Freedom of Information Act?

No, because the violation will read something like “faulty/inoperative ()light" rather than "smashed ()light.” A burned out bulb could generate the same citation.

Hah – this sounds exactly like something Steven Levitt would do, if he had access to enough data.

As far as I’m aware, traffic citations are not a matter of public record in most jurisdiction, since they don’t rise to the level of actual crimes. But there may be a few states that publish statistics on the matter.

This seems to be much less frequent, now that many police cars have video cameras that record each stop.

Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s there was a couple of small speedtrap towns just north east of Houston Tx on U.S. Hwy 59N called Roman Forest,Patton Village and Splendora that were notorious for stopping cars that had bumper stickers from local rock and roll radio stations and if they could not find something wrong they would make something wrong so they could write you up. I was a passenger in a car that Patton Village P.D. pulled over and when the officer couldn’t find anything to bust us for he broke out a tail light lens and scraped the license plate renewel sicker off the plate and then wrote the driver tickets for defective taillights and expired license plates. One thing the officer didn’t account for was that we had a loaded camera in the car and after the officer pulled off we got out of the car and photographed the damage lens and pieces on the ground and scraped off sticker pieces still laying on the cars bumper with the new ticket and a watch to show the time in each picture as evidence. When the driver went to court with proof that the license plate renewel sticker had been purchased the month before the ticket and the pictures taken as evidence the tickets were dismissed and the judge chewed the officer out in open court.

So what happened to the officer? That’s criminal damage, extortion, and contempt of court, surely?

ETA: Not to mention attempting to pervert the course of justice

What I never get about anecdotes like that is why smash a light? Well, I get that it pisses off the driver and costs him extra money to fix, but the stories are often told as if it were what made it possible for the cop to write the ticket. Why?

If the ticket is based on a lie, then why not just, you know, lie? If the cop is going to lie, if the cop is going to knock out the taillight in front of you, then why doesn’t he just skip that step and hand you the ticket anyway? He knocks it out because it’s somehow “proof” that you had a busted light? That makes no sense either – how is the court supposed to know that you didn’t replace the light yourself the next day? Why doesn’t he just skip the whole physical evidence route and just say the light was out, or just make up something completely different – like you crossed the yellow line or were speeding?

I’m sure it’s happened once or twice, but the trope that a cop does that so he can ‘officially’ write a ticket makes no sense.

He knocks out the light to damage the car and cost you money for pissing him off (real or imagined). I imagine his satisfaction goes up the more the car looks like a showpiece.

IIRC there was an episode of Knight Rider, the tacky old TV show with the gay car; where your central-casting southern sheriff stops the car and when he can’t find anything wrong, he tries to break a tail light. “Ah’m gonna have to cite y’all for a broken tail light” “What broken tail light?” “This one.” Whack! Whack! Hilarity ensues (cue laugh track) as several baton blows fail to even scratch the lens cover before he gives up.

So anectdotal or not, it was a common urban legend (rural?) even back in 1980.

These kind of threads almost never rise above the level of anectdote, and it’s true that the kind of specific data your looking for is going to be impossible to find. But the Bureau of Justice Statistics does have some publications relevant to interactions between the police and the public, including one on traffic stops.

The first time I drove in Mississippi, I kept hoping for this to happen, so I could have the full tourist experience. Alas, I was unmolested.

I don’t know,when the judge said that the driver was free to go he left and never heard anything more about it.

A couple of years later and after one of the local tv stations started reporting about the problem the Texas legislature passed a anti speed trap law that required all citys and towns to forfet traffic fine revenue to the state. (IANAL and don’t know the details of the law but that was how the local news media explained it)

You could always fly to the Police Station with the ticket and the old looking and functioning headlamp.

But the statistical analysis could still be worth doing since burned out bulbs should be fairly evenly spread in the population (ok, after you account for things like more defective cars in poorer neighbourhoods etc).

But of course, you could have obtained that from another car.

I’m with Rhythmdvl: it makes no sense. Maybe it simply started as a TV trope. Instead of either actor in the interaction needing to give a narrative (“Oh no! You’re writing that I have a broken taillight!”), you have a somewhat more dramatic “Well whatta we have here…” smash
Also in the latter case it’s more obvious that the hero has been inconvenienced.

True but then it is becoming more of a story. If you are at the police station in the time it takes to drive from the location of the ticket to the PS location, then the allegation becomes that in no time you were able to find a similar vehicle to yours with headlamps similarly sunbaked and switched them in order to fight a fix-it ticket. That’s more of a stretch than you going to the trouble of driving to the station to fight a made up ticket from a corrupt police officer.

Let’s hope we don’t get pulled over!

Not exactly what you are looking for, but the cops hit my *parked *car on the street, decided to give me a bullshit ticket for it, then pretty much refused to pay for the damage.

Some cops are on a power trip. Policing attracts a certain mentality (among others). They get off on the fact that they have all the power.

Nowadays, people are more likely to complain and I suspect it doesn’t take too many similar complaints before the Chief knows something is up. In the 1950’s it might have been “who cares?” but in this day of mass media and class-action lawsuits, a chief that lets his force cost the city millions in legal fees may be concerned about his own job security.