I Promise, Officer, I Don’t Have 30 Pounds of Cocaine in the Trunk

I looked into my rear view mirror as the police officer stepped out of his vehicle. He confidently strode to my passenger door and tapped on the glass.
     “Hello, officer,” I said.
     “You know why I pulled you over?” He asked.
     “No sir, I do not.”
     “You’re driving without a front license plate.”
     Oddly, this exact scenario had played out only a day prior, no more than fifteen miles east of where I was now, just outside of Columbia, Missouri on Interstate-70. But ultimately the exchange was harmless, and before I knew it I was once again on my way with nothing more than a slap on the wrist.
     “You know it’s against the law to be driving without a front license plate in the state of Missouri, don’t you?” he asked.
     I did. But after years without incident—I hadn’t had a front license plate for the better part of a decade—I thought it was more frowned upon than anything. Like running at the pool or eating that left over burrito that’s been sitting in the fridge for two weeks.
     I danced around the question and told him about getting pulled over the day before. How I was on my way back to St. Louis, where I lived, and how I would sort it out as soon as I got there. An answer that was met with a certain amount of contempt.
     “What were you doing with it off in the first place?” he asked.
     It was a question I wasn’t expecting, but one I wasn’t unwilling to answer. After all, it was a good story. It went something like this: I shared a car with my brother in high school and he thought it looked cool.
    The police officer was less amused than I had expected, but he seemed to accept it as a reasonable enough answer because he then switched topics.
     “What’s the tint on your windows?”
     “The tint? What’s the percentage?”
     At this point I knew what he was getting at. My car windows were tinted well below Missouri’s legal standard of thirty-five percent. But this, like the license plate, hadn’t once come into question over the better part of the last decade, so I was again under the impression that it was a loose guideline. Like not wearing white after labor day or eating that leftover chinese that’s been sitting in the fridge for two weeks.
     “Um, thirty-five?” I said.
     “We’ll see about that,” he said, pulling out a device that vaguely resembled a 3 hole punch. He slipped it onto my window, pressed a button, and smirked. “Just as I thought, twenty-three percent,” and then, continuing on: “You know what the legal limit is in the state of Missouri?”
     “Twenty?” I asked.
     “Thirty-five,” he said, as if he was having the best day.
     This revelation was followed by a pause. It wasn’t long, but under the circumstances it was enough time to be uncomfortable, so I mustered up a nice thought: “Okay?”
     “How about you join me in my car and we figure this out.” he said.
     Join him in his car? What for? I hadn’t done anything wrong. Well, there was that time I took my friends pocket comb when I was six because it was literally the coolest comb ever, but I did feel bad about it, and the guilt was punishment enough, right?
     “Wait, what?” I said, taken aback. “Why?”
     “Because I said so,” he replied, which was followed by some explanation how he was going to run my information in the computer and how it would be easier for me to answer any further questions there.
     “Um, okay,” I said, not knowing what else I could do.
     I couldn’t believe what what was happening, and why it was happening. For years the license plate had been harmless; a simple act of teenage indiscretion. But now, over the span of twenty-four hours, it had given me more trouble than a pair of chopsticks at a soup convention.
     I sat in the passenger seat of the police car with a feeling, one has to assume, comparable to a teenage girl sitting at the popular table at lunch for the very first time. I peered at the state trooper out of the corner of my eye as he busily typed on his computer.
     “Alright,” he began, turning to me. “When was the last time you smoked a blunt?”
     It was a comment that, in a perfect scenario, would have seen me spewing coffee all over the windshield. But there was no coffee, so the thought alone will have to do.
     I told him rather unconvincingly I didn’t smoke, which was true. However, it was something I was often associated with, especially during this time in my life. I blame it on my appearance. My hair was long. My face often unshaven. I wore sweatpants and hoodies, the latter of which I was wearing now. In fact, thanks to this ski bum look, I had been asked for rolling papers three times at the local grocery store in the past month, and mistaken by a nice homeless man for his buddy Dave.
     My answer was greeted with stern silence. The officer just sat there, looking at me, not saying a word. The stillness of it all made me feel more uncomfortable than I already was, so I rambled on.
     “I don’t know, two years ago, maybe?”
     The officer was less than convinced, but surprisingly the answer seemed to push the conversation onward.
     “Where are you headed today?” he asked.
     “St. Louis,” I said.
     “What is it you do there?”
     “I go to school at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville.”
     You see, I was driving back to St. Louis to finish my last college semester after spending a day and a night in Kansas City with my parents. There, we had watched the Royals play the Yankees. Which was a big deal. Especially for my Mom, a lifelong Royals fan.
     The officer asked me a few more questions. About school. Where I was coming from. What I was doing there. All of which I answered honestly, to the best of my ability. And so it went for a couple of minutes. A seemingly futile question followed by a simple answer. And then he asked me how I felt about him searching my car.
     Needless to say, this took me by surprise. Stumbling through my words I told him that he didn’t need to, but to go ahead if he’d like. I thought it best to show confidence, and didn’t feel confident enough to tell him no.
     “So you’re giving me permission to search your car?” he asked.
     “Yeah,” I replied, hesitantly.
     “Okay,” the officer said. “Now, before I search your car I have to ask you a question. It’s something I ask everybody.”
     “On a scale of one to ten, one being blunt ashes in the ash tray, and ten being thirty pounds of cocaine in the trunk, what do you have and where’s it at?”
     I paused, taken aback. A couple of things ran through my mind. First, the spectrum was broad. Wildly so. How could one be expected to accurately measure any wrongdoing? Say I’m a guy who just stole a cat. But the cat was in a bad situation and hadn’t been properly fed for weeks, not to mention his litter was a disaster and he hadn’t once seen a belly rub, so really I’m performing an act of public service. Where does that fall? A three? And second, there was no zero. A number I would have liked to use. So I thought hard.
     “Point five,” I replied.
     “Point five?” he asked, bemused.
     “If I have anything in the car there might be a pocket knife in the glove compartment.”
     The officer didn’t say anything. Instead, he turned and typed something into his computer, and then got out of the car.
     “Sit tight,” he said, before shutting the door.
     As he walked toward my car I couldn’t help but feel I hadn’t done myself any favors. Point five? What was that? It was apparent he was already suspicious of me, but now it was as if I had kicked him in the shin, stripped him of his lunch money, and told him it wasn’t me.
     He began in the front, on my passenger side. I could vaguely see the silhouette of his upper body rummaging through my things as his legs remained exposed, in contact with surface of the interstate. After a couple of minutes he made his way to the back seat, spending a good while there, and then, finally, the trunk.
     Meanwhile, I sat in the front seat of the squad car, growing ever anxious. While I didn’t have anything illegal in my car, there is a certain feeling of apprehension that consumes one while watching a state trooper ransack their car on the interstate. I mean, what if a friend or a friend of a friend or one of my many passengers over the years had left something illegal behind without me knowing? Or worse, what if he plants something? Sure both were unlikely, but I’d seen movies, man.
     From my spot in the front seat of the squad car I could see the shiny lining of Dynamat on the underside of my trunk lid. He spent a few more minutes looking around going through my many things—among them my jumper cables and a frisbee—before closing the trunk and turning back for me and the squad car.
     I watched him make the short trip from car to car, both relieved and nervous at the same time. It didn’t appear as though he had found anything of note, but I’d been wrong before.
     He opened the door and sat down. Saying nothing, he returned to his computer and started typing once again. The subtle pitter-patter of the keyboard seemed amplified, as my angst continued to grow with each passing second. Then, abruptly, he turned to me and said, “Alright, you’ll need to get that window tint changed and your front license plate put back on as soon as you get home.”
     I’m not sure what I was expecting him to say, but this definitely wasn’t it. Without so much as a Hey, how are ya, or I hope the last ten minutes hasn’t been too excruciating, or I bet you thought I was going to plant some drugs or something, I was off the hook. Just like that.
     Not wanting to give him time to change his mind, I told him eagerly I would. We then said our goodbyes, and I exited the vehicle and walked back to my car. As the cars whizzed by me on the Interstate, I wondered what they were thinking. Maybe they didn’t even notice me. Maybe they thought I was some drug dealing college kid. Maybe they thought I had just stolen a cat, but from a bad situation, so really I was some type of public servant.
     I opened my car door and plopped into the drivers seat. I felt triumphant, but then again, I hadn’t done anything wrong. I looked at the clock to see thirty minutes had passed since I left, which felt like an eternity ago. I sat there thinking how strange it all was. An hour ago I was some college kid driving the three plus hours from Kansas City to St. Louis. Now I was some college kid who had been asked by a police officer if he had thirty pounds of cocaine in the trunk.
     That darn license plate.