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I was at a gas station parking lot. The vehicle is registered under my name. My license plate is revoked in the state of Kansas for 3 years. The tags were not able to be seen due to mud covering the tag.

The gas station attendant did not see me operate the vehicle due to customer volume at the time. I returned to ask him. The people in the gas station were not familiar to me or the gas station attendant. There were several other vehicles and patrons in the gas station.

An officer pulls into a gas station parking lot and comes up to "provide a courtesy by informing you your tag is too dirty to read" and does not view the person being provided this courtesy actually operating the vehicle. No emergency lights were ever turned on and I was not in the vehicle. After I was informed my tag was dirty I thanked the officer and he left. I went inside and purchased a drink and used the restroom and came back outside to pop my hood and add power steering fluid to the vehicle. During that time, the same officer and another unit pulled back into the lot, again without emergency lights, to "stop" a vehicle that was not in operation to arrest me for "driving" with a suspended license.

Is this a "traffic stop"? And is it considered a driving offense to add power steering fluid to a vehicle on private property?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Dale M Sep 30 at 3:58
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First off, the fact that they stopped you on private property is irrelevant. The traffic offense - you driving the vehicle with a suspended license - occurred on public property en route to the station. That offense does not simply disappear because you are now on private property, nor do the police need to wait for you to leave private property in order to stop or arrest you. So... forget the gas station even exists in this scenario.

The real issue at hand here is whether or not the officer needs to actually see you driving the vehicle in order to make an arrest. The answer is no. There isn't any other valid reason your car would be where it is now other than it was driven there. If you are the only person with the car, then it's reasonable to assume that you were the one that drove it there. Plenty of people get arrested for this "connect the dots" way of proving they drove, especially in DUI cases. But the officer doesn't even need to assume that second part either.

It all comes down to the actual definition of "driving" in the law books. Most citizens would interpret the word as meaning actually moving in a vehicle. That's wrong. Defining a driver and what constitutes driving is actually way, way broader in the eyes of the law. In Kansas, a driver is defined in such a way:

8-1416. "Driver" defined. "Driver" means every person who drives or is in actual physical control of a vehicle.

Essentially, having physical control over the vehicle is generally enough to label you as the driver or that you are driving the vehicle. In a lot of states, having possession of the keys to the vehicle is enough for a court to say you had physical control of the vehicle, because "physical control" is more broadly defined as "capable of making it move and within close proximity" to the vehicle. Thus, you can be arrested for traffic-related offenses. It does not matter if the car is parked, if you're filling it with fluids, or just taking a nap in the front seat.

  • On two occasions, personally, I have had a car towed to a gas station, so "isn't any other" fails a trivial personal anecdote test. In fact, on one of those occasions I too needed to add power steering fluid which the OP stated they needed to (the other involved a burst radiator coolant hose). But that's Buicks for you. – user662852 Jul 17 at 2:45
  • @user662852 Except that still doesn't make sense if you weren't already driving the car. If you're not legally allowed to drive the car, there's no reason for you to need to have it towed to a gas station for that reason. Are you implying there are people who have have a car towed from home, fix it somewhere else, and then have it towed again to get it home? Versus just going to the store via other transit options, getting fluid, and bringing it home? – animuson Jul 17 at 2:53
  • A driver could come back. In another anecdote from my life, my parents' Chevy on the way to my grandparents when I was 10 or so. My dad was the driver, we had a breakdown, and he went with a mobile mechanic to an open parts warehouse hours away on a holiday weekend, leaving my mother supervising kids and the car in a state of disrepair on a gas station lot for hours. My mother had a license, but this isn't a given for all family situations. If there is a statute is interpreted that "having keys" = driver, then that should be all. – user662852 Jul 17 at 3:21
  • And possessing the keys of a car does not mean I am driving. I personally cannot drive out of concern for a medical issue (the state has a hold on my license). My car is presently legally parked on a public street in front of my house and I have the keys. Since I have been restricted, I have even sat in the driver's seat with the keys in hand while looking for papers in the glove box while a cop who knows I can't drive drove by. To violate my restriction, I would need Keys in Ignition while in my car's driver's side seat seat. – hszmv Jul 17 at 12:47
  • @hszmv I believe that you are mistaken when you write "To violate my restriction, I would need Keys in Ignition while in my car's driver's side seat seat." I think if that cop had chosen to investigate, you could have been cited for violating your restriction. The section cited in the answer says this for KS, and I believe that similar laws are in place for many states. – David Siegel Jul 17 at 14:58
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Whether this is a "traffic stop" is not relevant. If the officer has probable cause to believe that you committed the offense of driving without a valid license (or indeed any similar offense), then the officer can arrest you for that offense, and essentially say "tell it to the judge" if you protest that you weren't actually driving at the time of the arrest.

If the evidence described in th question was presented to a finder of fact, it would not be unreasonable to draw the inference that you had, shortly before you were arrested, in fact driven on the public streets without a valid license.

Moreover, in law "driving" a car extends beyond controlling the car while in motion. Standing next to the car with the car keys in your pocket may well amount to "driving", depending on the exact law in the specific state.

The officer is not required to fully prove the charge before making an arrest. Nor is the officer required to investigate all possible alternate theories of what happened.

If you think the officer did not have probable cause to make an arrest, this can be raised at some part of the proceedings, possibly at a probable cause hearing or an arraignment. (Exact procedures vary.) Failing that it can be raised at th4 start of a trial.

If you think the state has not proved its case, this point can be made in arguing your case at trial. But finders of fact often reject possible but improbable scenarios, particularly when no actual evidence has been presented to support them.

Note that when coming close to the car the first time, mentioning the dirty plate to you, the officer may well have been able to read the plate and thus look up your records. License plates are designed to be visible even through dirt to the greatest extent possible. If the dirt was so caked on the plate that it could not be red at close range, that alone is a violation, and would probably justify the arrest initially, allowing the officers to obtain your registration and other information, and thus determine that your license was not valid.

If this is a real sequence of events, you need to consult a good lawyer promptly. Tell the lawyer what happened. The lawyer can tell you if the officer not having actually seen you in the moving ca is any defense, or if the stop or arrest was in any way defective so as to offer a defense to the charges pending.

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Please note that this answer assumes a U.S. jurisdiction. If this incident took place outside of the United States, seek outside help.

I would first get a traffic lawyer or contact the Public Defender's office, but the officer does seem out of bounds to arrest you as driving on a suspended license typically requires the complainant (the cop) to witness you driving (sitting in the drivers seat with the engine running shows intent to drive). Since this is a criminal case, the cop will need to show that you did drive the car and that there is no other way for the car to have gotten from your property to the service station and for you to have gotten there as well.

How you really got there has no bearing on your defense so long as there is the possibility that another story could exist. In order to be found guilty the cop needs to prove you drove the car and there is no way your car wasn't towed there or your brother didn't drive the car. YOU DON'T HAVE TO OFFER A COUNTER STORY, JUST SHOW THAT THE COP'S STORY IS NOT THE ONLY WAY YOU AND YOUR CAR APPEARED AT A GAS STATION.

In fact, do not tell a story even if it's true. It doesn't help. Be completely honest only with your lawyer. If there was a body in the trunk, tell your lawyer.

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    Does the officer need to see them committing the offence themselves, or could they have simply walked into the gas station and asked to see the CCTV footage, and deduced from that that there was no second person in the car when it arrived? All it would take is a compliant station attendant for the CCTV footage to be willingly shown. – user4210 Jul 15 at 20:26
  • @Moo: Lucky for the OP, those details are easy to figure out as the prosecution must disclose all evidence it has related to the matter (including witness it is calling and CCTV footage). Typically for traffic court it's little more than the complainant officer and his police report on the incident. Given that the store clerk was slammed at the time of the incident, I doubt he could be a reliable eyewitness (he already said he didn't recall the incident).+ – hszmv Jul 15 at 20:33
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    "Given that the store clerk was slammed at the time of the incident, I doubt he could be a reliable eyewitness (he already said he didn't recall the incident)." - the CCTV wouldn't have been slammed... that was my point - pretty much every gas station these days has CCTV. I find the laws around what a police officer in the US can and cannot do to be odd in a lot of occasions, hence my question about whether viewing the CCTV would have been enough to establish the offence and subsequent justification for an arrest, or whether the officer had to see it with their own eyeballs. – user4210 Jul 15 at 22:25
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    Parking a car at a gas station and filling it with fuel seems like intent to drive it. If it were parked at a mechanic maybe you could tell a different story. – Brandin Jul 16 at 9:25
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    @Phoog - "They only have to eliminate reasonable doubt that the accused drove the car." Beyond Reasonable Doubt standard of evidence is a higher standard than Probable cause Standard. In court, the defense merely has to cross examine the cop to what extent other possible scenarios exist. If the complaint is a cop who at no time saw the OP drive his car to the gas station, nor drive away from the station, then he cannot for 100% certanty say that the OP drove on a suspended liscense (though it's the most likely story). Without evidence (CCTV footage) or informants, the officer has not+ – hszmv Jul 16 at 18:38

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