Why are suspects always "operating" "motor vehicles"?

Why can’t they ever just drive a car? In fact, just yesterday I was following a story and a police officer corrected herself in a press briefing after saying the suspect was driving a silver something-or-other to saying they were “operating” it instead. Especially nonsensical since this was just one dude; it’s not like he was attending to the sunroof and mirrors from the passenger seat or something.

What distinction are the police trying to make here? Is there some internal police lingo where it matters to them somehow? Right now all I can think is that it’s some appeal to the fallacy of argument by prestigious jargon, where they’re keeping control by seeming to know way more about the situation than you do.

It’s jargon like any jargon. Most professions do this, and the different jargon they use has different origins and explanations.

In my experience, cops talk like a weird cross between lawyers and gangsters. In this particular case, like lawyers. Operating does not always mean driving (in particular, it usually includes sitting in the driver’s seat while the car is parked and off, a relevant distinction in DUI cases). Motor vehicle does not always mean car. But the relevant legal categories are usually “operating” and “motor vehicle,” and so that’s what police say.

It’s come up in a couple previous threads that, in certain jurisdictions I’m glad I don’t live in, people have been nailed for standing next to their cars while under the influence. “Operating” means “in control of,” even if “control” means “it’s locked and I have the keys in my pocket.”

“Motor vehicle” rather than “car” might mean they can nail you for drunk driving, say, a snowmobile. It would also prevent somebody from weaselling out of getting busted whilst driving a truck or tractor.

Good points. A “motor vehicle” is a legal term of art that includes vehicles that would not normally be considered “cars” in everyday speech. This may include vehicles such as motorcycles, trucks, vans, buses, ATV’s, tractors, forklifts, and other wheeled contraptions. Other times of transportation, such as bicycles, horses, and horse-drawn vehicles are frequently not considered “motor vehicles” under the laws of many states and are subject to somewhat different regulations. For example, not all jurisdictions recognize the crime of DUI if it is done using something other than a “motor vehicle”.

I once saw an old geezer on the teevee insist that nobody “drives” a car. “Driving” is something that gets done to animals, and a car isn’t an animal; it’s a piece of machinery. Machinery gets “operated,” animals and the wagons, coaches, carts, sleighs, and sledges they pull are “driven.”
It might have been an old rerun of You Bet Your Life.

Interesting. Living etymology.

I find it a long-established thing that police officers – likely everywhere – in the performance of their duties, tend to use pompous-and-stilted-sounding “officialese”, not “real language”. A long-standing staple of British fiction involves the police constable in his reporting whatever kind of incident, saying with great solemnity: “At eight-forty-seven P.M., I was proceeding in an easterly direction…”

In reality the conventional wisdom of the profession is to get away from such talk and go to plain speak. For instance when I first came on it was still common for older officers to write reports in the third person. It was always “The below signed officer” or “this officer” but I was taught from the beginning to just write “I.”

When it comes to certain words or phrases it is for a specific legal reason why it is used, not just for purposes of jargon. For instance in a DWI report you will see the phrase “the odor of an alcoholic beverage emanating from his breath.” We all know what a drunk smells like but since pure alcohol is a basically odorless liquid the phrase is used to avoid getting hammered by a defense attorney over ambiguous wording. Operator or operating is used because certain statutes require operation to be proven as an element of the offense. Not driving, operation. You can be operating a vehicle and not driving just like one of our officers who was named on an accident report as the operator of both vehicles in one accident. That is in written reports. In day to day use I can’t remember anyone over the radio calling someone an operator only a driver. However, we are not big into jargon or codes. Corporate culture for different departments vary. The NYPD basically has their own language and other cops may have watched too many eoisodes of NYPD Blue.

For more on the issue of “operating” a “motor vehicle” see this blog

I’ve done you the service of following up links to his prior posts on the topic. There are many niggling technicalities in this law stuff. Most of which are being diligently tested by one or another member of our loser populace. :slight_smile:

These are newest on top to oldest on the bottom.

http://loweringthebar.net/2015/09/barbie-jeep-dwi.html (especially good)
http://loweringthebar.net/2012/09/more-about-rui.html (this too)