Recently we experienced a less-than-pleasant aspect of life as Panama expats. We were driving from Las Tablas to Chitre and got a speeding ticket just outside the town of Guarare.
It was a motorcycle cop who pulled us over. We could see him as we came around a gentle curve in the road. He was standing with his back to us talking with another driver he’d pulled over. As we approached he gestured — without turning around — for us to pull off the road.
He walked over to the driver’s side window and showed a radar gun with 72 on it. That’s kilometers per hour, not miles, but still. . . Then he rattled off a few paragraphs of Spanish, of which we understood not one word.
My husband produced his license and passport, and the officer walked around to the back of the car. He was entering information into his computer. He came back around, obviously unhappy about something but we had no idea what.
He seemed to be questioning why the passport number and driver’s license number were different. But we’re not sure. Then he went around back again and entered more information into his computer. Then he came back to the window. Maybe it’s because we registered the car in my name, we thought. I produced my passport and told him I owned the car. He frowned.
Finally he came back around, gave my husband back his license and passport, and a speeding ticket.
Never have I regretted my lack of Spanish language skills more.
My husband was fuming. He was positive he hadn’t been driving anywhere near that fast, and in any case how could the cop have clocked us when he never aimed the radar gun at us?
That happened on a Sunday.
So what’s an expat to do?
Call a Lawyer
On Monday we called a local attorney and met with her briefly to find out what recourse we might have.
“He probably wanted money,” she told us.
That’s what we figure too, but we’ve also heard that they’re cracking down on police corruption here, and my husband didn’t want to run the risk of being nailed for offering a bribe.
She explained that my husband had the right to file a written protest. She was candid that his chances of prevailing were very slim as it’s our word against the officer’s.
It might be cheaper just to pay the ticket, she advised.
My husband felt strongly that the ticket was unjust. Whether or not he’d actually been speeding (and he thinks he wasn’t), neither of us believe the officer really clocked our car.
After pondering for a while, he typed up a statement and dropped it off at our lawyer’s office.
A couple of days later she called him. Her assistant had taken his statement down to the transportation office, and they would not accept it. The reason? The officer told him he had 30 days to pay, but only five days to file a protest. He was well outside that five-day window.
Needless to say, this didn’t sit well with my husband.
If at First You Don’t Succeed. . .
So the next day my husband and the lawyer went together. The lawyer was able to persuade the official that my husband, who speaks no Spanish, did not understand the five-day limit for protests as it was not printed on the ticket. The official agreed to file the protest.
In exactly 30 days my husband has to return to get their decision.
In the meantime we have a sheaf of extra papers we have to carry in the car. They state that he’s protesting the ticket. It will save us from having the car impounded if we get stopped again after the due date for paying the ticket.
I have no idea how this will all turn out. It’s certainly created some lively discussions around the house!
In the meantime, one of our Canadian friends gave us some advice that makes sense to me if you’re less than fluent in Spanish. “If you get stopped don’t say a word in Spanish,” she cautioned. “If you talk to them only in English, eventually they’ll give up in disgust and let you go.”
I hope we don’t have to test it out, but if we get stopped again for anything other than a routine traffic check, that’s going to be my policy.
I’ll let you know how this all plays out.
Oh, and in case you were wondering — the photo is of a Devil mask in the small museum in Guarare, Panama. I took the picture when we visited in 2011. I thought it described how we felt — the helpless little lizard in the maw of the great beast.
Rich Polanco (UnwireMe.com)
Well, that sucks. I reread the story three times and maybe I missed it. How much was the ticket?
LOL, Rich, that’s the best part. We have NO IDEA!!!
In Panama there is a booklet you’re supposed to carry in your car at all times. It lists the penalties for various infractions. As near as we can figure out the base price for a speeding ticket is $50, but they could end up charging us $75-150 according to what our lawyer said. I find the whole thing mystifying. In the US your ticket states the fine right there in front of you.
Do they also have a point system? So many points and no driving? Of course, if you are doing the three month border hopping? That wouldn’t work very well.
Hugo, we don’t have Panamanian drivers licenses, so we don’t need to worry about points. We checked with our lawyer about whether it would affect anything once we do get our residency and local licenses, and she said it would not.
The driver who was pulled over first, was he a gringo expat too? I’m curious about whether there’s racial profiling going on. I wouldn’t be surprised since it happens in the States, except I’m not part of the target group there.
Hi Paul, the first driver was Panamanian. I’m quite sure our car wasn’t targeted since we have a pretty dark tint on the windows. Of course it’s possible that once the window rolled down the profiling started. . . easy mark. . .
Oh Susanna – that’s quite an unsettling story……so sorry it happened!
Years ago a girlfriend and I were merrily speeding along a side road on Oahu and a lady cop pulled us over. We immediately turned on the tears….”just tourists, didn’t know….blah, blah…” This Hawaiian cop stopped us cold with “Forget it – it won’t work…..I guess the looks of astonishment on a couple of howlie faces did though – we got off with a warning….” I wish you the same good luck!
P.S. Somehow I got off your mailing list – want to put me back on? Bueno!
Hello Susanna, I came across your story while looking for info on a retirement move. How about buying a Spanish/English book? You should learn the language if you are living there. If only to make certain you are not being taken advantage of. It will take some time but you will be on your way. We still have 5 years before we decide where to go so research here we come! Best of luck to you in your new home!
LOL, Catherine, you’re preaching to the choir here. I promise you, carrying around a dictionary or phrase book would have been no help in this situation. Picture if you spoke some other language and you learned a little bit of English — British English. Then you found yourself stopped by a traffic cop in the American deep south. . . I took a couple years of Spanish at a community college before we moved here, followed it up with self-study using Pimsleur and a couple other programs, etc. There are people here I can understand pretty well. There are others who speak a local dialect and they are incomprehensible to me. Might as well be like the teacher in the Charlie Brown cartoons who just goes mwah-mwah-mwah.
Lol!! They are probably speaking very fast Spanish. I am Puerto Rican and sometimes I can’t understand my aunt – who speaks very fast. I just nod my head….I wish I could help! Best of luck to you.