Police Abuse

This Bicycle Registration Law Gives Police Yet Another Excuse To Punish Insufficiently Meek Citizens

A Montgomery County, Maryland, ordinance authorizes impoundment and misdemeanor charges for cyclists who lack the requisite sticker.


Did you know that residents of Montgomery County, Maryland, are legally required to register their bicycles? Neither did Steve Silverman, who last June received a criminal citation for violating that requirement. In a video about that experience, Silverman, founder of Flex Your Rights, presents it as an example of how "police use ill-conceived laws to punish people who assert their rights." While Silverman's brush with the law was relatively mild as these things go, it does illustrate the problems posed by the myriad excuses that legislators give police for hassling people they deem insufficiently respectful.

Officer Christopher Brown of the Montgomery County Police Department initially pulled Silverman over for running a stop sign while riding his bike in what he describes as "a quiet residential neighborhood." In the police body camera video of the encounter, Silverman suggests that Brown stopped him because he had seen Silverman provide "educational information" to a young man who had just been detained, questioned, and released by Brown and Cpl. Jason Halko. That suggestion evidently irks Brown, who later asks, "Do you just try to intimidate me because you don't want me to give you a ticket, or why?"

Silverman declines to show identification but supplies his name, address, and date of birth. He takes out his smartphone to record the encounter, which leads to this exchange with Halko:

Silverman: I'm also recording the duration of this encounter, officers.

Halko: You don't have a right to record when you're stopped and detained for a violation.

Silverman: I disagree. It's a First Amendment right to record.

Halko: Oh, all right.

Having lost that argument, a sheepish and possibly embarrassed Halko leans into Brown's car and reports that "I don't see a registration sticker on his bicycle." After Halko confirms that Silverman does not have the requisite sticker, Brown radios for a van to pick up the bike. That's right: The same county ordinance that requires registration of bicycles also says police "may impound any unregistered bicycle until the bicycle is properly registered." Although Halko ultimately dissuaded Brown from taking Silverman's bike, the officers still left him with two criminal citations requiring him to appear in court, one for the stop sign violation and one for the unregistered bicycle.

Silverman says he was not aware of the bicycle registration requirement until that day. "I was dumbfounded when they wrote me a ticket for it," he writes in an email. "Afterward, when I learned that it was a criminal summons, I was double-dumbfounded. The registration law is written as a Class C civil violation (i.e., a non-crime). But under Maryland law, the police may write up any class A, B, or C violation as a misdemeanor crime, as they did in my case." If charged as a misdemeanor, a Class C violation is punishable by a $50 fine and up to 10 days in jail if the fine is not paid.

When the November 12 court date rolled around, Silverman and his lawyer showed up, but neither Brown nor Halko did. "When my attorney described the charges, the judge just shook her head in disbelief," Silverman says in his video, "and the prosecutor kind of chuckled as he dropped the charges."

Silverman notes that "I was very fortunate because I could afford to hire a great attorney," and "I didn't need to find child care or risk losing my job to make that court date," which is not the case for many other defendants. He urges legislators to "stop passing laws that give police the power to stop and arrest people, because police will inevitably find creative ways to use those laws to harm people in ways you did not intend." And if legislators find that "police are misusing, for example, mandatory bicycle registration laws," he says, they should "repeal those damn laws."

A couple of legislators already have heeded Silverman's recommendation. Last week, David Moon, a Democrat who represents Silverman's district in the Maryland House of Delegates, posted a link to his video on Facebook, along with the text of the bicycle registration law, urging the Montgomery County Council to "repeal this nonsense." Council Member Tom Hucker (D–District 5) says he wants to re-examine the law. According to a 2016 Citylab report, "Only a handful of mainland North American cities currently have mandatory bicycle registration laws."