A little clarification on tickets and misdemeanors, and what police can and can’t do

Maybe I got it wrong.

Or maybe the person who explained it to me did.

But yesterday, I got clarification on what police can and can’t do in cases where they don’t witness a violation.

My understanding was that the police were prohibited from writing a ticket or filing misdemeanor charges unless they actually saw it happen. Which is why it’s so hard to get criminal charges in a harassment case, for instance, because few motorists are foolish enough to threaten a bike rider when a cop is watching.

However, it turns out that’s not quite right.

At Wednesday’s meeting of the LAPD bike task force, officers who work in traffic investigations explained that they actually can write tickets for traffic violations after the fact — if the evidence or witness testimony makes it clear that a driver broke the law.

For instance, if the evidence suggests that a collision occurred because someone ran a red light, they can ticket the responsible party even though they didn’t see it happen.

Criminal charges are another matter.

While police are free to make felony arrests whether they see the crime or not, state law prohibits them from making a misdemeanor arrest unless they see the violation.

However, the key word there is arrest; misdemeanor charges can be filed later if the evidence warrants, whether or not the officer was there when the crime was committed.

Clear now?

It seems like splitting hairs, but that’s the current state of the law here in the late, great Golden State.

The good news is, that means your bike cam video can be considered as evidence leading to a misdemeanor charge.

It can also lead to a traffic ticket after the fact, though that’s not likely in most cases. Particularly if the violation didn’t lead to a collision or injuries.

A couple other quick notes from the meeting:

  • Police are seeing a number of bikes converted to use a small gas-powered engine. However, once you hit the gas, it’s no longer considered a bicycle. Anything with a motor over 150 cc’s is legally a motorcycle; anything below that is considered a moped. And both are subject to laws that bicycles aren’t, as well as licensing requirements. E-bikes are not subject to the same requirements and are still regarded as bicycles under state law.
  • By far the leading cause of bicycling collisions in the Valley Traffic Division is riding against traffic. In fact, riding salmon resulted in nearly six times as many collisions reported to the police as dooring, the second leading cause. And not only does riding upstream dramatically increase your risk of getting hit, it also means you’re automatically considered at fault, at least in part, regardless of any other factors.
  • Finally, those long-awaited stats on hit-and-run requested by the L.A. City Council are unlikely to be delivered before the end of the month. The LAPD still working on compiling detailed data breaking down just how prevalent the problem actually is. But it would be great if they could step it up just a little, since there are currently two state laws under consideration to address the problem, and a little solid data might help.


  1. […] A Report from the LAPD Task Force (Biking in L.A.) […]

  2. Jeff Nerdin says:

    I’m curious about bike cams. I’ve thought about mounting one on my bike to record my daily commute, not to post on YouTube, but to have a record in the event of an accident or other incident. This post seems to suggest that that would be a good idea. Do people do that? Are there good, compact, affordable options out there to use for this purpose? Do they record on a loop or do you just restart the recording whenever you’ve uneventfully filled your memory card? Do the cameras typically capture sound or are they usually just video? Thanks.

    • bikinginla says:

      That’s the reason I have a bike cam. Yes, it’s also captures stupid driver tricks, which I share online; however, the real reason I have one is to offer evidence in case I’m hit by a car or stopped by police.

      It’s common for bike riders to be blamed in the event of a collision; if there are no witnesses to contradict it, the other party will often say the rider went through a stop signal or unexpectedly swerved into traffic. Having a bike cam can offer proof of what really happened.

      There are a number of good cams out there; most reviews tend to place the GoPro Hero and Countour Roam at the top of the heap, in that order; I use the latter.

      They record to a memory card, allowing you to capture several hour of audio and video. My practice is to leave it on when I’m in traffic situations, and turn it off when I’m riding on a bike path where I’m less likely to need it. Then when I get home, I download anything I want to save and delete the video from the cam to make room for my next ride.

    • matt baume says:

      I do highly recommend the GoPro. It does a great job of documenting everything around you. I have mine running whenever I ride, and then if I get to my destination with no incidents I simply delete the last recorded video.

      Of course, even if you have footage of harassment or an accident, there’s no guarantee that police will be interested. I was hit a few months ago and brought the footage to the LAPD. I basically had to beg in order to get them to file a report — they were very resistant, saying that because I wasn’t injured it wasn’t really worth it. Even when I showed them the footage of the guy striking me with his car, they said it would just be his word against mine because video can be misleading. A very frustrating experience.

      • bikinginla says:

        Odd, I think most experts would agree that video evidence is far more reliable than eye witness testimony.

      • jg says:

        LAPD said the Rodney King video was misleading too. Some things never change and LAPD never will.

  3. Harv says:

    A bit more clarification regarding the motor bike and e-bike laws:

    There is a popular myth in the bicycling community that bikes with gas engines under 49cc do not require an operators license or registration. Not so. ANY gas engine of any size powering a bicycle requires full documentation. And not just an auto drivers license either, but a motorcycle license and insurance.

    E-bikes under 1000 watts, limited to 20mph are exempt from motor vehicle licensing, registration, and insurance. However, e-bikes over these limits are not. There are presently on the market, several of these overpowered e-bikes. To further complicate matters, some e-bikes within the power/speed limits can be made illegal for license-free use with a simple jumper wire in the controller. Anyone riding one of these had better stay under 20mph or risk getting ticketed.

    • bikinginla says:

      Thanks Harv. The officers explained that yesterday, but I’m afraid my note taking wasn’t up to the task. I appreciate you filling in the details.

  4. sahra says:

    My only quibble with the piece is the idea that no one would harass you in front of an officer. It has happened to me many, many times. It is a problem for women in particular, I would guess. I can’t tell you how often some guy has driven alongside me, telling me exactly what kinds of physical and sexual violence he is going to get me with and there is an officer directly behind his car. It hasn’t just been verbal — there have been road ragey games of chicken (where the driver will slam on his brakes in front of me a few times for fun) or people reaching out of their windows to try to slap my behind. Even when I narrowly escaped a physical assault from a guy who chased me down on a bicycle and cornered me on the river bike path, the officer I flagged down after escaping told me he would write me up for using profanity in public instead of chasing after a predator. They don’t always take women’s claims seriously or understand what kind of harassment we might face.

    • bikinginla says:

      I think that’s definitely something you should take up with the police commission; I only wish I’d heard about this before yesterday so we could have discussed it at the bike task force meeting,

      You have a legal right to ride without fear of sexual or physical threats, and the Supreme Court has been very clear that you have a 1st Amendment right to use profanity in public.

      If anything like that should happen again, be sure to get the officer’s badge or unit number, and file a complaint. Or at the very least, send it to me and I’ll take it up with the department.

  5. […] In LA offers some clarification on when and how police officers can write citations for traffic […]

  6. Not to further complicate things, but there are misdemeanor crimes that come to mind for which police in California can arrest without witnessing: DUI being the most relevant to this forum, but also certain domestic violence crimes as well.

    Subjects can also be after-the-fact arrested by peace officers for misdemeanors committed if a witness is willing to first place them under private-person’s arrest (aka “citizen’s arrest,” but that term is no longer used since one doesn’t need to be a citizen to make such an arrest).

    • bikinginla says:

      Thanks Will. It helps to have someone who knows what he’s talking about, even if it does complicate things a little more.

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