Returning from a recent trip down to
Jacó (12/18/2011), I was just beginning to merge into traffic onto the Pan
American Highway, just outside Puntarenas. About 200
meters in front of me, I saw a local Transito cop apparently writing
a ticket to the driver of a small white truck. As I
increased my speed to merge in to traffic, he immediately
pointed to my vehicle, made eye contact with me, and
signaled me to pull my car off the road. OH SHIT...
WHAT DID I DO NOW?
Getting stopped by a cop in Costa Rica
is not new to me. By all accounts, this may be my 11th
or even 12th encounter I have had in the last three years
but fortunately escaped the inevitable every time but once.
But what really pissed me off today was, I was absolutely
doing NOTHING wrong!
The cop immediately walked over to my
car and I handed him my CR drivers license and cedula (Costa
Rican Residency Card). He told me to wait in my car (in Spanish
of course) while he finished up with the other driver.
As soon as he finished he walked over and began asking me
all sorts of questions such as... "Where was I going?"
was I coming from?" "What was my business on the road?"
Understand this... you are NOT in the United States anymore
and these questions are perfectly legal (and expected).
There is no such thing as "probable cause." If a cop
asks, you answer. Its as simple as that.
tried to find out what I did wrong - "¿Qué hice mal?"
His response did me no good because it was in
Spanish and spoken at a speed which could not be assimilated
by my gringo brain. I kept telling the cop that
my Spanish skills were limited and I asked him to speak
slower. He then tried to diagram my infraction on a
scrap piece of paper. The best I was able to determine
was that he stopped me for FAILURE TO YIELD WHEN
ENTERING A HIGHWAY. Apparently, according to Costa
Rican Law, I should have come to a complete stop, let any
and all cars pass instead of increasing my speed to
match that of the existing traffic.
The cop then proceeded to enter my
information into an electronic ticket book. That was
actually pretty cool. When he was done, the hand held
device spit out a paper receipt which I assumed was my
ticket. The cop indicated the place I needed to sign.
My only problem, I had no idea what I was signing, what my
presumed transgression was, and most importantly, how much
was the fine? On the same piece of paper he diagramed my
offense, he wrote down the cost of this fine... 357,000 colones...
that was $710! I almost went ape shit! For the
first time in my almost three years living in Costa Rica, I
felt like a true victim and I had no where to turn.
Its bad enough arguing with a traffic
cop back in the States, but here I was facing a language barrier
and a legal system that was completely
opposite of my homeland. Innocence is NOT
PRESUMED in Costa Rica... GUILT IS.
CLICK ON PIC TO
For over twenty minutes, I argued with
this diminutive cretin to the best of my limited ability.
We were both growing frustrated. He then instructed me
to get out of my car and follow him back to his vehicle.
Thoughts of pending doom were running through my head.
It was then his English began to improve... dramatically.
me that I could save a lot of hassle and receive no points on
my license if I just paid a smaller fine right there on the
spot. I asked the magic words... "CUANTO CUESTA...
How much?" He
wanted $100. I told him that that was too
much, I told him $25. After a little
negotiation we agreed on $50. Bienvenidos A
I know what you are thinking and I know
what you are going to say. Paying bribes to cops is
wrong and it is tantamount to feeding the beast. I
should have looked this little shit right in the eye and
said... "just give the damn ticket" and be done with it.
Well that's easier said than done. You weren't staring
at a $710 fine and potential loss of your drivers license
for a year.
Root Cause Analysis...
But now let's get to the real root of
this problem. Last year, Costa Rica's legislature
passed a new set of national traffic laws. To say they
were Draconian in nature would have been an understatement.
A simple infraction like going 20 kmh over the speed limit,
the automatic fine would be $600. Think about it this
way... let's say I'm doing 80 kmh in a 60 kmh zone
(that's 48 mph in a 36 back in the States), I would be
subject to a $700 fine!
That's friggin insane! Now, beginning Jan 1, the
legislature has decided to increase the fines by a factor of
Just take a look at this:
|Passing on a curve: $936
Driving While Intoxicated: $936
Driving Without a License: $936
Running a Red Light/Stop Sign: $702
Riding a Motorcycle without a Helmet: $702
Illegal Use of a Cell Phone: $702
Excessive Window Polarization: $374
Parking Violation: $374
Vehicle Restriction: $92
Not wearing a seatbelt: $30
No Vehicle Inspection: $20
Most of these fines are outrageous and outside the paying capability
of most residents, especially when you consider the average
monthly income here is around $400-500. The Legislature, in
the infinite inability to think in terms of "reality" have
opened Pandora's Box. The Legislature has created an
environment that encourages (less than
stellar) cops to line their pockets with some quick cash.
Please Be Cautious...
Costa Rica is a wonderful place to live
but it is not without it's pitfalls. If you live here,
contemplate living here or are just visiting, you must do so with
your eyes wide open. This sort of thing is likely to
happen during your stay. Unfortunately, these sleaze
balls prey on gringos and tourists. I can't tell you
what to do because each situation is different.
However, you should also know that the
Costa Rican government is trying to clean up this mess.
Just the two days after my incident, six of these scum bags
SEE RELATED NEWS ARTICLE. I even think they may
have gotten the guy who tagged me.