In my work providing legal advice and a legal voice for Oregon’s bicyclists, I often hear about times when a road user reports a dangerous driver to the police. Such reports can be met with a collective shrug by law enforcement and no citation is issued.
While apathy by law enforcement is pretty common when it comes to road user complaints about dangerous drivers, there is a legal reason that the police do not issue citations to these drivers: they are not allowed to.
ORS 810.410 Arrest and Citation provides the statutory authority for Oregon’s police officers to issue traffic citations. A police officer can issue a citation in the following circumstances:
The police officer observed a traffic code violation that occurred in their presence;
The police officer has probable cause to believe a traffic code violation occurred based upon the description of another police officer who observed the violation being committed; or
When a traffic crash has occurred the police officer has reasonable grounds, based upon their personal investigation, that a person involved in the crash committed a traffic offense.
So, in Oregon, a police officer has no legal authority to issue a citation for a traffic offense that he or she did not observe or that did not result in a crash that they investigate. Speed and traffic signal safety cameras have special exceptions to these laws.
These restrictions on the authority to issue citations even extend to traffic violations captured on video. So, for example, if a person riding their bicycle captured a dangerous and illegal driver on their helmet camera, the police cannot use that footage to issue a citation unless the conduct resulted in a crash or the police officer observed the conduct and the conduct was committed in their presence.
If you encounter a dangerous and unlawful driver you should still report them to the police by calling 911. The police may decide that their conduct constitutes criminal charges (like reckless driving, driving under the influence of intoxicants, or attempted assault). Even though the police cannot issue a citation, Oregon law allows for you, as a citizen, to issue one using the procedure found in ORS 153.158 (a topic I will cover in a future blog post).