I recently had the opportunity to spend an evening with several of the fine men of southern New Jersey law enforcement. This is because I was pulled over by the police twice in the span of 10 minutes last week while I was driving my imported Nissan Skyline GT-R.
You’d know all about my recent traffic stops if you followed me on Twitter, because I posted a few pictures from the side of the road. But you wouldn’t know the full story until now, where I’m giving you all the facts in a column and a video. This will undoubtedly leave you desperately hanging on the edge of your seat, unless you have to do something gravely important, such as pee, or make a photocopy.
Before I get started, a little backstory: because I live in the middle of the very large and crowded city of Philadelphia, my house only comes with enough room to park one car. So I park my Skyline at a storage facility 20 minutes away in upscale suburban New Jersey, and I park my Hummer in a surface lot in West Philadelphia where I silently hope it will be stolen by those guys who beat up the Fresh Prince.
So last week, on Monday night at around 10:45 p.m., I went to retrieve my Skyline from the storage facility in order to shoot a video that I had scheduled for Tuesday morning. And this is where our story begins.
I knew I was going to get pulled over the moment I saw the police car hanging back about 30 feet behind stopped traffic in the lane next to me so he could get a look at my license plate. When a cop leaves three car lengths behind someone in order to read your license plate, you’re screwed. It’s like when you’re a wildebeest, and you’re hanging out at the watering hole, and you look up to see there’s a hyena 20 feet away. At that point, it’s over. You’re done. You just wince and hope the hyena doesn’t tow your car.
So a couple of seconds after traffic started moving, the police officer changed lanes to get behind me, and then he turned on his lights.
Now, I don’t care what any American Skyline owner says: the first thing you think, when you see police lights in your rearview mirror, is: Is he going to tow my car? Yes, I know it’s legal, and you know it’s legal, and the DMV knows it’s legal, but your average street cop isn’t usually too well-versed on federal laws regarding vehicle importation. This is because he spends approximately 90 percent of his time dealing with people who insist they haven’t smoked pot, and they don’t have any pot, even though they call the officer “dude” and they have two cannabis leaves tattooed on their cheeks.
So when the officer approached on the left side of the car – the passenger side – I was pretty nervous. Here’s how the conversation started:
Police Officer: How are you doing?
Me: Good, how are you doing?
Police Officer: Good. Do you have your license, registration, and insurance?
Me: I do.
Police Officer: I stopped you for a couple reasons. One is your license plate’s hanging. And, I can’t read what state it’s from.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that’s right: I’m driving a rare, powerful, freshly imported, high-performance turbocharged sports car late at night on virtually empty roads, and I get pulled over for – not speeding, not weaving, not reckless driving – a license plate violation. This is what happens when you drive a 25-year-old Nissan through an upscale suburb at 11 p.m. on a weeknight.
Now, a little more backstory: although Japanese license plates are roughly the same size as American license plates, the bolt holes are in different places, which makes it very difficult to fasten the American license plate to the car.
So I’ve resorted to a complex strategy that involves zip-ties and a big black license plate frame, which, I admit, comes off with approximately the same legitimacy as a Craigslist seller offering a MacBook Pro for $150 because “my daughter dont want it no more”.
As I was getting my paperwork together, the conversation continued.
Police Officer: Why are you driving on that side of the car?
He said this so nonchalantly that I wasn’t sure if I had heard him correctly. So I asked him to repeat it and he did, once more, in this unusually casual manner that made it seem like he thought I had decided earlier that day to spend the evening driving on the wrong side of the car. It was as if he thought that I walked up to the car, decided things weren’t exciting enough, and moved the steering wheel over like it was one of those child’s toy steering wheels where you press the horn and it makes animal noises. I replied:
Me: Oh, I imported this car from Japan.
Police Officer: Okay.
Me: Trust me, it’s no more fun for me than you’d expect it to be.
Police Officer: They’re for racing, these cars, aren’t they?
It was at that moment I knew I’d be getting a ticket.
So the officer disappeared back to his car, which is where he spent the next 20 minutes.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that’s right: 20 minutes. Initially, I thought I’d be getting a warning, because who gives a ticket for a crooked license plate? After five minutes, I figured it was taking so long because he was writing a ticket. After ten minutes, I was wondering if he had called in the drug dogs for a quick sniff of the guy driving on the wrong side of the car. After fifteen minutes, I thought maybe I should go back there and check on him to make sure he hadn’t died in his patrol car and was already starting to decompose. After twenty minutes, I wanted a cheeseburger.
Eventually, he walked back up to the car and told me he had written me a ticket for the “improper license plate display,” which is a $54 fine. He also told me the reason it took so long was that his computer system wouldn’t accept my short Japanese VIN number. Or my make and model. Or my model year. As I look at the ticket right now, it was written to a 1999 Nissan Unknown, and the VIN section is blank.
At this point, he loosened up, and we discussed some of the other violations he’s seen (“Those pickups where they mount the license plate crooked in the tailgate? I write those every time.”) and what he thought of his Dodge Charger police car (“I hate it”) before we parted ways for the night. Since I was only ten minutes from home, this is where I thought my interaction with the police would end for the evening. Until…
Six minutes later, on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge heading into Philadelphia, I noticed a police car slowing down to get closer to me, then next to me, then changing lanes directly behind me. I was once again the wildebeest. I had survived the first hyena attack with merely a license plate violation, but they were back. And they had a Ford Taurus.
Anyway: the moment we got off the bridge, the lights came on and a second police car joined the traffic stop. Once again, I pulled over right away, and once again, the officer approached me on the passenger side. Here’s how it went:
Police Officer: Do you have your license, registration, and insurance?
Me: Yep! Here’s everything from when I got pulled over three minutes ago in Cherry Hill!
Police Officer: What did he get you for?
Me: Improper license plate display.
Police Officer: Yep. Let me see the ticket.
At this point, the officer walked to the back of my car, where he was joined by the other officer who had stopped me. Despite the original officer’s gruff, pointed demeanor, I could hear the two of them talking about me as they reviewed the ticket written a few minutes earlier by the other officer.
Officer 2: That guy’s sitting on the wrong side of the car!
Officer 1: I know! That’s crazy, right?!
After just a few seconds, the officer came back to my car, told me to get the license plate taken care of, and informed me I was free to go. At this point, I was thinking Jalopnik pictures, so I asked him if I could take a photo of my car stopped in front of his patrol car. He rejected this request with approximately the same demeanor I would expect him to reject my request to sleep with his wife.
So I went on my way, and I made it the next five minutes home without getting pulled over for a third time. This is largely because I was now driving through the city of Philadelphia, whose police officers don’t have time to deal with license plate violations, what with all the murders, armed robberies, muggings, Eagles fans, etc.
For those of you curious about how a police officer handles a traffic stop with a Nissan Skyline, a quick recap. Neither officer seemed to have any idea what a “Nissan Skyline” was, nor why it meant I would be driving on the wrong side of the car. More importantly, neither officer seemed interested in checking out any customs paperwork or verifying that the car had been legally imported. They just wanted to make sure the guy with the crooked license plate and the old car wasn’t doing anything sinister in their jurisdictions so late on a weeknight.
Fortunately, I can truthfully say that I’ve learned a lot from this experience. Number one: if you’re driving an old car with a loud exhaust through a nice suburb late at night, you’d better display your license plate correctly, or else the police will have to find something else to stop you for. And number two: nothing gets by the fine officers at the Cherry Hill and Delaware River Port Authority Police Departments. Especially not the guy sitting on the wrong side of his sports car.
@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn’t work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.