It’s an innocuous summertime program that convenience store chains have been offering in conjunction with local police departments for years – the retailers print up a bunch of coupons for a free inexpensive treat, police officers hand them out to local residents as “positive tickets” to help reinforce good behavior, and everyone comes away with warm fuzzy feelings about their friendly local police department and their benevolent local convenience store.

Except, that is, when the message gets muddled, a sloppy version of the story goes viral, and a feel-good story about coupons devolves into a social media squabble about police overreach, civil liberties and constitutional law.

Police in Tempe, Arizona and the Circle K convenience store chain were no doubt hoping for some positive publicity when they announced their “positive ticketing campaign” yesterday. “Circle K, in partnership with the Tempe Police Department, is providing coupons for either a free cold drink or a free hot beverage item for officers to distribute to community members who are safely adhering to traffic laws related to bicycle and pedestrian laws,” the police department announced.

It’s the same kind of program that Circle K, 7-Eleven and others have long offered in cities across the country. If a police officer walking the beat comes upon a young bicyclist wearing a helmet, for example, or a pedestrian waiting for a walk signal, the officer cordially offers the law-abiding citizen a coupon and everyone comes away happy.

But a local TV station’s interpretation of the initiative did the Tempe Police Department no favors, sparking a daylong online uproar.

“Cops to reward people for good driving,” Phoenix’s KPNX-TV announced on their Monday morning newscast. “If you see a Tempe police officer pulling you over, it may not be a bad thing,” reporter Colleen Sikora cheerily declared. “So if you see police lights in your rear view mirror, maybe hold off on the panic.” She went on to explain, “if an officer sees someone following traffic laws correctly, related to bicycles and pedestrians, they can pull you over. But instead of a citation, you’ll get a free drink coupon.”

The police department’s announcement said nothing about driving or pulling over vehicles. But no matter, the TV station posted the report online, and invited viewers to “give us your reaction to this new initiative”.

And oh, did they get reactions.


Over the course of the day, the video clip was viewed more than 3 million times and generated nearly 10,000 comments before the station deleted it about ten hours after it was posted.

Some commenters simply thought the program was a bad idea. “If you pulled me over for ‘good driving’ and then gave me a free Circle K drink I would be absolutely livid,” one wrote. “I want police to leave me alone, especially if I’m obeying all laws,” another responded.

But other commenters raised more serious constitutional concerns. “This is absolutely unlawful. A traffic stop is a seizure, and must be supported by probable cause of a traffic infraction or reasonable suspicion of a crime. A traffic stop that lacks one of those legal justifications violates the Fourth Amendment,” Seth Stoughton, a police officer-turned-University of South Carolina law professor, tweeted. “Publicizing ‘happy stops’ only enables lawless activity by police, and is wide open to cop abuse,” another commenter added.

Another critic put it bluntly: “If you pull me over as part of a marketing partnership with a gas station I will absolutely 100% sue.”

As the comment thread gained steam on social media, national legal blogs and conservative websites picked up the story, and Tempe police and KPNX quickly found themselves in the middle of a full-fledged firestorm. All of it because of some convenience store coupons.

Police tried to put out the fire by clarifying that, no, they never had any intention of pulling over drivers without cause. KPNX offered a number of followup social media posts, but never really owned up to its own mistake, which started this whole mess. First, the station tried blaming the messenger, saying that the small but rather pertinent detail that the police initiative didn’t involve motorists “wasn’t originally clear in their release on the campaign”. Then, it admitted passively that “there has been confusion about Tempe PD’s ‘Positive Ticketing Campaign’.” Finally, the station posted an extended Facebook interview with a police spokesman, which it promised would reveal “exactly how the messaging behind the ‘Positive Ticketing’ campaign went awry.”

In that interview, detective Greg Bacon explained that “this is a consensual conversation. An officer won’t be sitting on the sidewalk… and see a vehicle yield the right of way to a bicyclist, and then go after that car to pull them over to reward them. That is not what this program is. It never was that way. It was never intended to be that way. And it won’t be that way.”

Missing from the conversation was an explanation of “exactly how the messaging behind the ‘Positive Ticketing’ campaign went awry.” It may have been an innocent enough mistake on KPNX’s part, but in the end, instead of admitting to misreading the police department’s news release and misreporting the information, the station removed its initial report and declared the controversy over “because Tempe police have since clarified how this program will work.”

“Sorry we said cops will be pulling people over when they won’t,” one commenter mocked the station. “Hope no one on the internet saw this.”

So if you find yourself driving through Tempe this summer, you can rest easy that your civil rights won’t be violated as part of a “positive ticketing” campaign. But then if you have a hankering for a drink at Circle K – you’ll have to settle for paying for it yourself.

One Comment

  1. As the saying goes: “no good deed goes unpunished!”

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