Using an automatic license plate reader (ALPR) system, a Maplewood officer looked for stolen vehicles or those being driven by owners with invalid or revoked licenses. Plate numbers show up on a laptop screen and are instantly run through a state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension database.
Friday's Star Tribune featured a big photo of a state trooper patrolling for text-messaging drivers. The headline: "Have you been texting this afternoon, sir?"
So I couldn't help doing a double-take as I drove to work and a State Patrol Chevy Tahoe passed me on eastbound Hwy. 10 in Coon Rapids. The uniformed trooper behind the wheel was clearly looking at the "mobile data center" laptop in the passenger seat next to him.
Wait a second. Officers were out this week busting people for texting while driving. But they can work on a computer while going 60-plus miles an hour? How does that work?
State Patrol spokesman Lt. Eric Roeske said the agency gets questions about this "pretty frequently." Roeske, who was a good sport about tackling the question, said: "Obviously, it does seem like a bit of a contradiction when people see laptops in squad cars.''
Well, yes. It does. Bottom line, there's a double standard at work here, though one that makes sense.
Recognizing officers' intensive driving training and public safety's unique communications needs, Minnesota's inattentive-driving statutes make exceptions for those who protect the public. Roeske said it doesn't appear the laptops have put them or other drivers at risk. "If it was a problem, trust me, we would be addressing it,'' he said.
The State Patrol encourages officers to limit laptop use to official needs. Roeske said they shouldn't "just be browsing the Web for the heck of it.''
That's reasonable. I'd already assumed the trooper who passed me wasn't checking his Facebook page. I wish I could say the same thing about other drivers I routinely see.
Jill Burcum is a Star Tribune editorial writer.
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