Police may find traffic stops to be anything but routine
By Tom Mitchell
Monday, July 30, 2007

KITTANNING -- While many routine traffic stops by local police result in a verbal or written warning to drivers, some may turn into arrests for anything from drug possession, drunken driving, finding stolen goods or arresting a fugitive from justice.

Kittanning police department patrolman Joseph Riskosky said borough officers routinely make about 10 to 15 routine traffic stops a week. The most common reason for making a stop in the borough is speeding. Riskosky said borough police use VASCAR to verify a driver's speed. Police Chief Ed Cassesse said speeding is a major traffic problem in the borough and his department is making every effort to slow down drivers who ignore posted speed limits.

Riskosky said that police make a number of stops when they spot vehicles with expired registration plates or inspection stickers. Stops are also made for equipment violations, with defective lights or loud exhaust systems being the most common. Tinted windshields or side windows are a vehicle code violation for which police may make stops.

"It's not only loud exhaust systems that we hear on some vehicles," Riskosky said. "Some drivers violate the borough's noise ordinance by driving with car stereo systems turned up very loud. You can hear them from quite a distance. Lately, however, we haven't issued too many citations for this type of violation. We issued a number of citation for loud radios and the word got out, so things are a bit quieter."

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Riskosky said the first step for police in a routine stop for any reason is to notify Armstrong 911 that a stop is being made.

"This is for our own safety," he said. "You never know what you are going to encounter when making what you think is a routine stop. We radio in the license plate number of the vehicle, a description of the vehicle, the number of occupants and the location of the stop. In a few minutes 911 has the plate registration number and we can know if the plate registration is for the particular vehicle we stop or whether the plate or the vehicle has been reported stolen. Most often, we may issue a warning citation for a defective light, leaky exhaust, or something like that.

"When we stop a vehicle we tell the driver why we stopped them and we ask for their driver's license, vehicle registration and insurance card. We check this information out through Armstrong 911 to verify that the driver's operating privileges have not been suspended and that there are no outstanding warrants out on them. We also verify that their insurance is up to date."

Cassesse said that one Kittanning police patrol car has an on-board computer and printer that enables officers to check vehicle registration plates and driver's license information from the patrol car and receive the desired information in a matter of minutes. He said that in the near future, all borough patrol vehicles should be equipped with on-board computers.

"When we check on a driver's information most of the time everything is OK," Riskosky said. "But sometimes we find that a person may have one or more outstanding warrants. In that case we take the person into custody. The warrants may be for relatively minor traffic offenses such as unpaid traffic tickets, or they may be for more serious crimes."

Riskosky said weekend stops yield a number of arrests for driving under the influence, especially between the hours of 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. When a driver is suspected of driving under the influence his or her vehicle may be pulled off to the side of a road or street by police if a legal parking space is available. Barring a legal parking spot, vehicles are towed to an impound lot to be picked up later by someone designated by the offending driver.

Occasionally, police will find suspected illegal narcotics in a vehicle, with marijuana being the drug most commonly found.

"We don't find too many vehicles with narcotics," Cassesse said. "The state police make more such arrests while patrolling main corridors such as Route 28. When we do encounter suspected narcotics or drug paraphernalia officers carry field testing kits that can give a good indication of what type of drug they are dealing with."

Cassesse said sometimes police discover a driver with illegal weapons. Some drivers are caught carrying a concealed weapon without a permit. However, he said that drug arrests are more common than arrests for weapons charges.

"We can discover a lot of unusual things through routine traffic stops," Cassesse said. Last December, for example, one of our officers stopped a vehicle for a traffic violation and noticed several items still in store packages but not in shopping bags. We discovered that the items were recently shoplifted from local stores. When we searched the vehicle we found the trunk packed full of stolen items. You just never know what will result from a routine traffic stop."

Riskosky said there are times when police attempt to pull over a driver who chooses to flee rather than stop.

"We never engage in high-speed chases if it means putting anyone's life, including our own, the life of the offender, or innocent bystanders in danger. Our department has a written policy and guidelines regarding high-speed pursuits and all officers have read and understand the policy. Under certain circumstances we may continue a high-speed pursuit where a serious crime has been committed, but again, the safety of all involved is the first consideration."

Cassesse said that his department ranks high in the state for closure on criminal cases, and routine traffic stops play a significant role in the department's excellent record.

Tom Mitchell can be reached at tmitchell@tribweb.com or (724) 543-1303 ext 220.