Saturday, December 13, 2008

Confessions of a Puffer

Many a winter morning, sometime between that first cup of coffee and my drive to work, I break the law in Colorado. That's because I'm a "puffer," in police parlance -- meaning someone who leaves the car running, unattended, to take the chill out, warm the engine, and, on some mornings, save myself a case of ice-chipper's elbow. But until recently, when I read this story in The Rocky Mountain News, and this story in The Aurora Sentinel, I had no idea this made me an outlaw.

Puffing is against the law because an idling car presents an irresistible temptation to car thieves, which makes us (or is it we?) puffers accessories to crime. It's the upside down way America works today -- the law-abiding are penalized for the actions (and potential actions) of law-breakers. The cops can't or won't stop car theft, but they can stop puffers. It's a lot of hard work -- it's a big hassle --apprehending bona fide criminals, but easy deterring crime by punishing and hassling potential crime victims. It's profitable, too, at $75 a ticket.

And puffing cases are easily cracked: the cop spies a vehicle without a head in it, but with a tell-tale puff of exhaust (thus the name "puffer") rising from the tailpipe. Wham. Busted. Ticket time. Take that, car thieves! McGruff to the rescue.

When I leave a car idling in the driveway on an icy winter morn, I'm vaguely aware that it's a little iffy -- I understand that some creep could take it. But it's a calculated risk that I, the car owner, willingly take -- one of a dozen I take every day -- because the benefit that comes from getting into a thawed-out car outweighs the tiny risk of a carjacking. It's my property. It's in my driveway. And why it's the business of cops to override my judgment on such matters baffles me.

One woman snared in the anti-puffer dragnet described in the Rocky was warming up her car for an elderly aunt she was driving to chemotherapy. "She's dying of cancer," the woman said. "She can't very well get into a cold car."

Excuses, excuses: she got a ticket anyway. Shedding tears was to no avail. It's the law! If we begin bending the rules for chemotherapy patients, who else will want special treatment? Woman with sick infants? People with the common cold?

This sort of preemptive crime-fighting puts us on a slippery slope. Where does it end when the cops start ticketing people for engaging in actions that might tempt criminals? Why not ban purses, as a deterrent to purse-snatchers? Holiday shoppers make tempting targets; why not place limits on how many shopping bags they can carry out to the parking lot, since bag-grabbers might lay in wait? I leave my windows open on summer nights to let the cool air in. Should I be ticketed because a burglar could also climb in?

Absurd, you say? Read the newspaper -- all absurdities are now officially within the realm of possibility. America is an asylum -- most of the patients just don't know it.


Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure that traffic violations (of which the puffer law is a subset) only apply to public property and private property intended for public use (e.g. mall parking lot). They can no more give you a ticket for "puffing" in your driveway, than they can for you speeding down your driveway (if you happen to be Magnum P.I. or Batman). Park your car on the road in front of your house, however, and all bets are off.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more, councilman. I moved to Denver fairly recently from another state. I have lived in quite a few states and visited most of the others. However, I can honestly say that I have never heard of a "puffer" law. The very concept is constitutionally absurd. Regardless, I was quite surprised to find myself harassed by a rather belligerent Littleton Police Officer on Christmas Eve morning, who rather indignantly explained to me that it's illegal to warm up my car. Excuse me? I still can't believe it. Not only was I surprised by the fact that there could be such an absurd law, but I was rather taken aback by the vehemence with which this cop searched our apartment complex until he finally found the offending owner of that so evil puffer. Wow! You would have thought I was a serial killer or the leader of a Mexican Drug Cartel. I guess they have to take their frustrations out on someone, since real criminals are a little harder to find? I really strive to be a law abiding kind of guy, but to this cop, just verbally harassing me and basically accusing me of being the root of all evil in the car crime world, seemed to be the order of the day. Although, perhaps he was somewhat merciful, since he just gave me a warning and some threats regarding future infractions. I suppose when I got my CO driver’s license I should have immediately Googled for "absurd car laws CO". Where do they post those notices at? I still haven‘t found any reference to the actual law or ordinance anywhere. Much like Douglas Adam’s "intergalactic bypass" notice, I imagine. I am still stunned. I would complain, but the system itself appears to be the problem. To whom do I report a broken system?