There was nothing much unfamiliar about the man with the sign at the corner of Lisbon and Main streets. It’s where the downtrodden go these days in hopes of collecting donations from a generous public.

Seeing the man with his sad little sign, a sympathetic woman slowed to a stop with the intention of handing over a few bucks.

But not so fast, generous lady.

“When you pull over to give him money,” the woman later recalled, “he says, ‘I’m not homeless. I’m a cop, and you can drive over there to get a ticket for not wearing your seat belt.”

Gotcha.

And with that, the woman was punished for two sins in one spot. Sin one was not buckling up as the law demands. Sin two was caring too much about a fellow who appeared to be in need.

That’ll teach you.

For a couple of days last week, police went undercover to target, not crack dealers, wanted killers or bank robbers, but men and women who had made the choice to drive without fastening their seat belts.

Melissa May Stevens, who posted a Facebook thread on the matter that caught political fire, is not a fan.

For the record, neither am I.

“Click-It-or-Ticket,” they call this crackdown, and now, in a zealous attempt to protect you from your own choices, police have descended to the level of preying on the sympathies of your average Joe and Jane.

Predatory policing? Or just another sign of how much Big Brother loves you and to what extent he will go to prove it?

The population, as is often the case these days, is divided.

“Dressed as homeless people to lure folks in,” said Stevens, who describes herself as a longtime police supporter and a personal friend of the undercover officer. “Yes, I’m so very disappointed in this tactic. And I am vehemently opposed to it.”

“Wrong on a lot of levels,” wrote another woman who weighed in on the Facebook thread.

“Impersonating a homeless person exploits both the kindness of others and people who are actually homeless,” wrote a Lewiston man. “Whether it’s ethical or not, it’s in incredibly poor taste, and it’s being done to exact fines for a victimless crime. Yeah, it’s a smart decision to wear a seat belt and it’s the law, but victimless crimes seem like they should be prosecuted opportunistically, not rigorously pursued through deception.”

If the public perceived the man on the corner as destitute, it may have been less about his appearance and more about the spot he inhabited. Police Chief Brian O’Malley said the department took great pains not to portray the undercover officer as a homeless man. The officer was in clean civilian clothes, the chief said, and wore a badge, a radio and a gun.

He was holding a sign, as most panhandlers do on that particular corner.

“I am aware that some people did not approve of this undercover operation, but some did,” O’Malley said. “The police want people to comply with the seat belt law and studies have shown the people who die in fatal car accidents more than 50 percent were not wearing their seat belts. This undercover operation has started people talking about the use of their seat belts, which is what law enforcement wanted to accomplish with the Click-It-or-Ticket campaign.”

Plenty of people approved of the undercover operation, and passionately so. The law is the law, they insisted, and obey them we must. Cops posing as the destitute to draw in violators (and a fair share of revenue) is just good police work, they said. These vile seat belt scofflaws must be punished!

“I think it’s pretty clever!” one man wrote of the operation. “It’s hard to see if someone is wearing a belt from inside a car. Plus if you are wearing your belt you have nothing to worry about! After all it IS the law.”

“This has been done in other states for many years,” commented another, “and, sorry to say, but if people would follow the law they would not have to resort to these tactics.”

“The answer is simple,” suggested another man. “Wear your seat belt.”

This is the main argument put forth by those who applaud the police operation and the nanny state as a whole. Obey, they say. Obey the law no matter how unfair or fundamentally unsound.

It’s an attitude that ought to terrify those who value personal freedom (and some of the people who value it the most are police officers, in my experience, including the one who was toting that sign out there at Lisbon and Main).

But you can’t make the freedom argument because it will be quickly countered with some public service announcement about how mandatory seat belt laws help keep insurance premiums down — I’m still waiting for any kind of proof of that — and about how people who don’t wear seat belts may get horribly mangled in a crash, and the cost of treating them will be enormous.

And when you open that door, there really is no limit on where the nanny state might take us next in the effort to protect us from ourselves — and score some sweet revenue along the way.

“I do not need the police to keep me safe in that way,” a Lewiston man commented on the very long and very lively Facebook thread. “Are they going to ticket me if I don’t take my medication? Or how about if I’m not wearing safety glasses while using a chain saw?”

Or how about if you’re a diabetic who says screw it and goes to town on a piece of cake? Or an alcoholic who decides to give the bottle one more go? What if you have frequent, unprotected sex, eat too much red meat or chain smoke even though your doctor told you to knock it off?

Do police have a duty to target you for those things, since you might contribute to the rising cost of health care? And if so, do they have the right to trick you into exposing your personal habits so that you can then be ticketed for them?

It will never fail to astound me how many adults don’t just believe that the government is looking out for them, they embrace all these state-sponsored efforts, no matter how frivolous or intrusive.

I had the following conversation the other day with a friend. He had been pulled over in Auburn by a click-it-or-ticket cop who had been hiding near the rotary on Mount Auburn Avenue.

My friend didn’t get a ticket, but the cop lectured him on the importance of wearing a seat belt.

“I appreciated it,” my friend said. “I don’t usually wear the seat belt on short trips and the officer reminded me that I should.”

So, you had made a personal choice about when you will and will not buckle up and you’re thankful that a police officer told you your choice was wrong?

“Absolutely,” my friend said.

So, you think some random cop knows better than you do how to take care of yourself?

“Well, it IS the law. Laws are there for a reason,” my friend said.

So, who was the victim being protected by your decision to skip your seat belt that day?

That’s when the discussion went south. That’s when it always goes south. The simple fact is that there are those of us who feel we don’t need to be protected from ourselves, and there are those of us who believe we do. When the police took this radical new approach to nabbing seat belt violators in Lewiston, it was bound to spark debate.

“Some people do not agree with the seat belt law,” O’Malley said, “and that may also be why they were opposed to the undercover operation. As you know, we have used undercover operations for enforcement of many different laws in the past.”

But I’m still with Melissa May Stevens on this one. It’s not so surprising that police would resort to such unsavory tactics to zero in on violators of a victimless crime. Federal grant money is a strong motivation, after all. But it IS surprising that it happened here.

After the undercover operation came to light, Stevens had a long talk with her friend, the police officer, about the ethics of what had transpired. Ultimately, they agreed to disagree.

“I told him that my heart was broken,” Stevens said, “and I was disappointed, as I hold LPD to such a high standard. They really are a great group of people, and I was very frustrated and let down by all this.”

Stevens has a little less faith in the LPD than she did before the department decided to send an incognito cop out onto the street to search for suckers. It’s a sad state of affairs, and Stevens is not the only one who feels that way.

The LPD brought in a few click-it-or-ticket bucks through the operation but lost respect among some of the people they serve. Worth it? 

I guess that depends on what your priorities are.

Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal staff writer who ALWAYS fastens his seat belt. Email him at [email protected]


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