Cops Use Undercover 'Repent' Signholder to Catch Drivers Using Their Cellphones

Say it's not entrapment if someone takes a picture.


Somersworth PD

Crime rates have been going down for decades, and while many Americans may be unaware, the decline has inevitably shifted some policing priorities around the country. If crime were out of control and the "war on cops" some apologists insist is happening—despite all data suggesting otherwise—was actually happening, these kinds of police actions would be not only ridiculous but dangerous too.

WMUR in New Hampshire reports:

Michelle Tetreault's daughter didn't know what "repent" meant when she spotted a man with a sign around his neck warning "Repent! The end is near!" But she's plenty sorry now that her mom is facing a $124 traffic ticket for using her cellphone to snap a picture of the man.

The two were stopped at a red light in Somersworth last week when they saw the sign. Moments after Tetreault gave in to her 14-year-old daughter's pleas to take a picture, she was pulled over and told the man with the sign was actually an undercover officer. She was ticketed for violating the state's new law against using cellphones or other electronic devices while driving.

Tetreault said she didn't know it was against the law to use your cellphone at a red light—in many states it is. WMUR sample some of the other over-the-top measures local police departments around the country take against the scourge of texting while driving.


With more than 40 states banning text messaging for drivers and a dozen states prohibiting use of hand-held cellphones, police departments around the country are getting creative when it comes to enforcement. New York has given state police 32 unmarked SUVs to allow officers to better peer down at drivers' hands. In California, officers with the San Bernardino police have posed as panhandlers with signs reading: "I am NOT homeless. SB police looking for seatbelt/cellphone violations."

Somersworth police Chief Dean Crombie said that when New Hampshire's law took effect in July, he noticed far fewer drivers using their phones. But as time passed, the problem ramped up again.

"About two weeks ago, I was sitting in an unmarked car watching traffic, and everyone and their brother was on their phone," he said. "So we were looking at innovative ways to maybe come down on people."

For anyone who's driven regularly on American roads knows, lots of people use their cellphones while driving. It's a wonder police officers haven't tried to set up roadblocks to catch texters and drivers. My wife and I once got pulled over in East Orange, N.J., because she had put her left hand near her ear and, the cop said, it looked like she had been on her phone. Satisfied the phone was actually stowed away, he left. East Orange, for what it's worth, has some of the worst crime rates in the area. But catching murders and rapists doesn't raise revenue. Catching drivers exiting the local highway does.

It gets worse. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's head, Adrian Lund, told Jalopnik a few years ago he isn't convinced texting and driving is particularly more dangerous than other kinds of poor driving practices, but says the laws against texting and driving could be distracting from more serious issues of highway safety. There's no evidence cellphone use while driving increases the incidence of crashes—in the interview with Jalopnik Lund said he suspected this was because cellphone use wasn't a new distraction insomuch as a replacement for other distractions, like reading the newspaper or shaving while driving.

Lind also pushed back against the idea that technology is making driving more dangerous:

Jalopnik: I'm sitting in a car with Bluetooth, navigation and a host of other hands-free technology. How do you think that will affect crash rates?

Lund: We've also had GPS coming into cars and a lot of other technology, and we don't see an increase in crashes. We need to be a little humbled by this and reevaluate the way people are using this technology in cars. We need to remember that distracted driving didn't begin with cellphones. Go back to the 1970s, when you looked at crashes the proximate cause was driver error, and usually it goes back to the driver not seeing something, which is distraction.

The DOT is absolutely right that distracted driving is an issue, and we need to address it. Our problem is when we look at laws, they don't seem an effective strategy for addressing it. We are hopeful some crash avoidance technology will be more successful.

Let's face it: Why do we have forward collision warning systems and lane departure warning systems? It's because drivers get distracted, and the idea of these systems is to get drivers attention back on the road when they wander into dangerous situation.

The blog drive-safely.net, meanwhile, explains how texting and driving laws could actually be leading to even more dangerous driving:

You see, before driving while texting became illegal, motorists didn't have to hide the activity. Even if they performed texting in plain view of a police officer while driving through a school zone, there was nothing the police could do. But things have changed. Now that the practice is illegal, people keep their phones hidden while they text and drive. So now, instead of the phone being up above the steering wheel where drivers can still see the road, they hold the phone down by their lap or under the steering wheel. This allows them to read or write a text out of view from the police.

Driving-safely.net also notes the fervor whipped up over texting and driving is preventing companies from developing technologies that could make using your cellphone while operating your car safer. Sometimes I wonder if in today's safety-conscious climate the government would even allow radio and radio dials in cars had they not already been ubiquitous. What a distraction changing the station can be.

NEXT: Washington, D.C. Mulls Nation's Biggest Family Leave Benefit, Funded By New Tax on Employers. Obviously the Federal Government Is Exempt.

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  1. Wow. Desperation all the way around.

  2. There are towns that exist solely to issue tickets. The population has left, there’s nobody to “protect”, yet the townships don’t dissolve and retain an officer to write tickets as people understandably “speed” through their ghost town.

    1. +1 New Rome, Ohio.

    2. Fenton, Louisiana.

      They are about to get sued out of existence.

      1. Sounds exciting! Have any links, or can you tell us the story?

    3. Selma, TX

  3. The number of people I see who are too stupid to sync their new smartphones to their new cars is kind of depressing. I sync my phone with rentals in a few seconds.

    1. So it’s kinda like lottery – tax on stupid ignorant (or lazy) people. Not sure I object.

    2. So an optical/ mechanical film camera is OK?

      And Gawker links?

      Et tu Ed?

    3. The above comment wasn’t supposed to go there. Initially I was going to ask Drake if he unsynced and deleted his cellphone from rentals because nobody else is doing so. I go to look for “SIV’s iPod” and have to wade through a dozen or more lines of previous renter’s cellphone data.

      1. This is the reason you don’t sync your phone with rentals or loaners. Because a lot of your personal info goes into that system, and if I can get certain information about your bluetooth settings, I can backdoor into your phone through bluetooth. It’s especially easy on Apple devices.

  4. The End is Nigh


  5. Cops are already welfare queens sucking on the public teat, so I don’t blame ’em for trying to look the part.

  6. Today’s cops are just the the playground bully who roams the campus shaking down people for lunch money. The only difference is the ‘teachers’ and ‘principal’ are in on it, and share their ill-gotten gains.

    1. ‘Armed janitors’ plus ‘brigands with a badge.’ The police are there usually to clean up messes after the fact, not to prevent them from occurring. Or they are there to get taxes from the citizenry that citizens didn’t have the desire to explicitly vote into law.

      Or, “The World’s Largest Street Gang,” although I think Pops (a longtime CA LEO) might have forgotten about the military when he made that crack about his profession.

      Incidentally, does dunphy make appearances here anymore?

      I’m torn about the anti-cellphone crackdowns, FWIW. Feel free to burn my small-L libertarian card, but in my limited personal experience, people manipulate their smartphones drive as badly as drunks do. I can see the argument that they drive worse, even, given that moderate drunks are trying to pay attention to the road, trying not to attract the police, while they attempt to get home, whereas many of the habitual smart phone users look very oblivious to anything other than the silicon crackpipe in their hand. YMMV.

      1. The solution to the cellphone thing is easy: don’t punish using cellphones, punish poor driving. That way you’re punishing the thing that causes actual harm, and not something secondary that may or may not lead to poor driving.

      2. The police are there usually to clean up messes after the fact, not to prevent them from occurring.

        Courts have ruled that police have no obligation to protect us if they feel their life is in danger.

        Agree that distracted driving is a problem. But I’d rather they target people who are driving recklessly, or prosecute those who get into accidents because they were distracted rather than nail everyone with a phone in their hand. But cell phone laws were never about public safety. This is simply a money grab, nothing more.

    2. Today’s libertarians are pretty much the pimple faced, blue-balled, nerds they always were and always will be. Sexual frustration and disappointed dads creating libertarians since the dawn of time.

  7. If crime did not exist, it would be necessary to invent some.

    1. “So we were looking at innovative ways to maybe come down on people.”

      “We don’t have a lot of opportunity for civil forfeiture here, so we’ve had to hire consultants to help us come up with new revenue streams. It’s like there’s some kind of war on cops or something!”

    1. +1 Overseer

      (If you need a little clarity, Officer, check the similarity)

  8. I’ve always wondered why cops don’t buy a shitbox car (or just steal one) and park it on the shoulder on the highway to catch speeders, since nobody slows down when they see some junker sitting there.

    1. The local PD here is smart enough to use cars like Nissans as unmarked cops cars though. That’s just not fair; I only look for UAW shitmobiles.

    2. They steal vehicles all the time; it’s called impounding. But it’s really bad form (or perhaps illegal) to do traffic stops from an unmarked vehicle. Plus, they would need to retrofit that vehicle with po-po lights and that would be a tipoff for people like me who always treat any vehicle on the shoulder as an unmarked cop car (sorry, Jordan).

      1. No, they don’t have to do the stops with the car. Have a marked car further up in radio contact with the radar operator sitting in the unmarked car. I’ve definitely seen operations like that before, albeit with only marked vehicles.

        1. Good point. Thanks.

    3. I think they used to do this in Maryland.

  9. Seriously, why does anyone bother to pretend it’s about safety? It’s about revenue, especially since pulling you over for a petty infraction comes with the possibility of discovering a further violation, like a crime that allows them to seize your car and any money you might have. Why do they act like all of that is just a lucky coincedence?

    1. The soccer moms believe that.

      1. And, many times, they are the “worst” offenders in this category.

        1. That’s different! Their conversation is important–yours is not and can wait until you reach your destination.

    2. Not to mention the fact that using your cell phone while stopped can’t really represent a safety hazard.

  10. My daughter was involved in a serious crash & taken to the hospital via ambulance, yet the cops made a delay by seaching her phone for texts or calls–which there were none. I was pissed. I asked where was their warrant to search. They said probable cause. I’m still miffed.

  11. So….entrapment, possibly violating the establishment clause. They’re just betting that nobody will challenge this, or perhaps realize they’ll have already written thousands of dollars of tickets before they get shut down.

    Remedy: Cops have to reimburse citizens for tickets, court cost, lost time, etc, from their own salaries. Taxpayers also have to reimburse citizens by the same amount as a motivation to better manage their police employees.

    1. “Cops have to reimburse citizens for tickets, court cost, lost time, etc, from their own salaries.”

      Ah, you’re being aspirational.

  12. Revenue or not, cops aside, if you are driving get off of your goddamned fuckin’ phone and pay attention to what you are doing.

    1. Stopped at a traffic light.

      1. Is that a ticketable offense everywhere? It is in California but I assumed other states might have more reasonable laws.

        1. Can only speak for two Canadian provinces (Alberta and BC), but in both of those it’s a ticketable offense to use your cellphone or adjust, program, or even touch your GPS while in control of the vehicle, which includes being stopped at a red light. I pull over and put the car in ‘park’ before answering my cell or programming my GPS. Not that I like it that way, and I think it’s overkill for the red light (or traffic jam) situation, but I can’t afford the huge ticket if I’m caught.

          BTW, IIRC from my year of Law School, “while in control of the vehicle” means anything you do behind the wheel once the engine is started, so technically, you also have to kill the engine when you pull over to use your cell or program your GPS.

          I don’t know of anybody that goes that far, though…

          1. Interesting. Thanks for the info…

          2. So just let your vehicle get out of control, & you can do anything.

    2. People can’t even walk properly when they’re yammering on a phone.

  13. Even on my way home, I have my GPS running on my phone. That way, if I get pulled over, I can say I was just looking at directions. I have yet to use this as an excuse, but it makes sense, and i once asked a cop if I was allowed to use my phone for GPS and he said yes, absolutely. So, that may help some folks.

  14. Contact info for Americans United For Separation of Church and State.

  15. Live free or die, amirite?

  16. The cops seem to be pretty good at causing crimes that would not have occurred without their participation. The argument could be made (I think incorrectly) that a person who, for example, sells drugs to a cop would usually be more than happy to sell them if the cop wasn’t involved and a crime would still have been committed. That is certainly not the case with this “crime.”

    1. It’s surprising how many hit men turn out to be undercover cops. Do real hit men even exist?

  17. Somersworth police Chief Dean Crombie said that when New Hampshire’s law took effect in July, he noticed far fewer drivers using their phones. But as time passed, the problem ramped up again.

    “the problem” – yeah sure…

  18. Do they ticket themselves? Cops are the worst offenders of cell phone usage and texting.

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