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One-On-One With "The Man" - Investigative

Questions Asked, Myths Crushed

Jonathan Thompson
Nov 12, 2010

California police officers are notorious for pulling over Honda drivers and issuing citations for illegal modifications every day. Please reread the last sentence with an emphasis on the word "illegal." The majority of those pulled over and often cited are quick to scream injustice and shout oppression, either through word of mouth or via the internet. They claim they're not at fault, they weren't really smashing through VTEC, and their eardrum-piercing exhaust isn't really that the loud...blah blah blah. They begrudgingly pay the fine but neglect to identify a solution, and then repeat the process a few months later. It seems some people never get a clue or perhaps choose to remain oblivious. Of course, there are those few who admit wrong doing and educate themselves on what is legal and what is illegal. Bravo to them. For those who are curious, the following Q&A session answers some of the more common questions on legal and illegal modifications and other relevant issues. The police officer I interviewed, an avid Honda enthusiast, pulled no punches, yet spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive subject matter.

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JT: Let's start with what is most common. On the street, what's the first thing that will get a Honda guy pulled over?
Officer: Modified exhaust. People are under the impression that because they buy a Greddy, HKS, DC, etc., exhaust system, it is 50-state legal. That's not the case. Under the California Vehicle Code, officers are allowed to stop a vehicle with an exhaust if the officer deems it louder than a factory exhaust.

JT: Are there any specific actions that can get drivers pulled over?
Officer: No specific actions. Drivers are only pulled over for violating the California Vehicle Code. It's as simple as that.

JT: What are some specific legal modifications that cars can have?
Officer: Air intakes, intake manifolds, and headers as long as they are C.A.R.B. 50-state certified. An eBay "like AEM" air intake won't work. Real AEM intakes or real DC headers that are C.A.R.B. legal are fine. AFCs, VTEC controllers, adjustable fuel regulators, and most turbo kits are not legal. DOT-approved and stamped light fixtures are also ok. Forward facing lights can only be white or amber. Rear lights can only be red or amber. White lights in the rear are a no-no, excluding reverse lights, which should only be illuminated when moving backward. There are no D.O.T.-certified aftermarket HID kits on the consumer market at this time. Only vehicles equipped with factory HIDs are ok.

JT: How about if the third brake light is removed?
Officer: This one is an interesting question because it isn't exactly California law. It's actually a Federal Safety Standard and D.O.T. requirement that all vehicles produced after 1986 be equipped with a third brake light. So, in essence, removal of that brake light would be considered modification to the lighting device.

JT: What are some of the more popular illegal modifications you see on the street currently?
Offier: Engine swaps-especially K series engines. Swaps aren't illegal when done right. The right way is to make sure all the emission control systems are hooked up, use the proper USDM ECU for that engine, and make sure all bolt-on parts are C.A.R.B. legal. JDM motors require USDM intake manifolds and headers or a C.A.R.B. legal alternative. Take it to the State Ref and have them certify it. Miss even one of those steps and the swap is illegal.

JT: How do today's modifications compare to illegal modifications ten years ago?
Officer: I've noticed people have tried to get back to the basics. Ten years ago, it wasn't uncommon to see people driving around with crazy paint schemes, under glow lights, and indiglo gauges. Motor swaps weren't as commonplace as they are now.

JT: Do you think people who modify their vehicles are more compliant with laws today in 2010, versus 10 years ago?
Officer: I've stopped Hondas and Acuras and conducted a lot of inspections. I usually talk with the owners about their setups and their future plans. Recently, and surprisingly, people are trying to do the legit thing. They ask me what they need to make their swap legal or if a certain part they are interested in is C.A.R.B. legal. I would say yes for the most part, they're more compliant.

JT: How can people intending to modify their vehicle further educate themselves on legal and illegal modifications?
Officer: Talk with a smog technician or call a State Ref. The Ref's are usually located at select community colleges, so they may have to call around, but these guys are educated on all mods that are legal, and illegal.

JT: What happens if a person refuses to pop their hood for an officer
Officer: They can be cited or even arrested for failing to comply with the lawful order of a police officer. Their car will be impounded. After it's inspected, the owner of the car will be liable for the towing and storage fees to get the car out.

JT: Can stickers on the window or exterior of the car get a driver pulled over? What about something hanging from the rear view mirror?
Officer: Yes, stickers on the window can get you in trouble, but you can have all the decals on the exterior body you want. So that decal you saw on the orange Supra or the pink S2000 in the "Fast and the Furious" is fair game, if that's your thing. If an item is large enough to block the driver's view, you risk being pulled over.

JT: A lot of guys don't run a front license plate, or they place it to the side of the front bumper, or even inside the car's front window. Can you touch on that?
Officer: They must have two license plates securely attached to the front and rear of the vehicle. If the plate is moved so far to the side that it cannot be seen, it could get them pulled over. Just jamming the plate between the windshield and dashboard isn't considered secure, and isn't acceptable. Also, using clear covers over the plate is illegal.

JT: Some guys like bumping their systems; if a cop hears it, are they going to be in trouble?
Officer: Yes, if heard more than 50 feet away, a driver can be cited.

JT: Probably two of the most commonly debated subjects: tinted windows, and legal ride height. Can you shed some light on these?
Officer: The center of the headlights must be at least twenty-two inches off the ground to be legal. Any lower than that, and a citation can be issued. Regarding window tint, you're only allowed to tint the rear windows, not the front windows or windshield.

JT: Any other information you want our readers to know?
Officer: Do your research before you commit to a swap. It takes mountains of money to ref a K20 in your EG hatch. You might stick with an easier swap like a B series. If you're shopping for a motor swap, look for a reputable engine builder or importer. The guy who's a "friend of a friend" and lives off the alleyway in a shady part of town, but wants to sell you a complete B18C1 for dirt cheap-stay away. Run serial numbers by your local law enforcement before purchasing a motor. Keep receipts for motors that you buy because JDM serial numbers are not cataloged when they arrive in the states. Be sure the seller writes the serial number on the receipt. Take photos of the swap before installation, after installation, and make sure the serial numbers can be seen in the photos.

The officer's perspective
"Look, cops get a bad enough rap. People are always on the defense thinking that cops screw with them simply for no reason other than driving a lowered DC, EG, etc. Yeah, there might be some cops out there like that, but there are cops like me who look beyond that. Personally, I don't care what you install as long as your parts are C.A.R.B. legal. I may pop your hood and see that cheap eBay intake or expensive STR intake manifold and let you go with a warning. What I'm really looking for is that thief who is riding around in his car with a stolen B18C1, stolen '99 Si tranny, or whatever stolen parts they have in their car. I can't stand thieves. I have never had one of my Hondas stolen (knock on wood), but I have had them broken into. I've also had a few friends whose Hondas or Acuras have been stolen. If I can take a thief's car away who has stolen parts and have it crushed, then there is some type of retribution."

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Vehicles stolen in San Diego*:
115,364 in 2000 through 2009
7,496 in 2009
1,682 in January through March of 2010
*Statistics obtained through the San Diego Police Department

Helpful Links:
2010 California Vehicle Code:
Look at Division 12 to review actual laws concerning everything from exhausts to illegal street racing.
Race Legal:
Check out the next legal race day for a chance to race at QUALCOMM Stadium in San Diego, California.
SEMA Action Network

Street Racing
JT: Compare street racing at its peak in the late '90s to now.
Officer: When street racing was at its peak, you would have hundreds of cars meeting up to go racing on a deserted street somewhere between 2-3 a.m. Now it seems more people are racing on the road when they see someone at the light or on the freeway; not that it didn't happen in the '90s, but it wasn't as prevalent as today.

Street racing is dangerous. If you want to gamble your life away for bragging rights, then you need to grow up. Remember, not only do you put yourself in harm's way; you put the general public in harm's way. I've seen many street races on my way home or to work. I've seen many of those guys cut people off and take the emergency lanes. The next time you think about racing someone, think about this: how would you feel if someone smashed into the back of your mom's car and killed her because they were racing-or how about if someone ran over your little brother or sister who was crossing the road to get to school because of racing?

Police Ride Along
I went on a ride-along with the officer to understand the law enforcement's perspective. The number of California Vehicle Code violations we saw in one evening was mind-boggling. The officer found one violation after another, but didn't issue any tickets. He was extremely knowledgeable on legal and illegal modifications. For example, he was quick to point out the VTEC intake manifold on a non-VTEC engine and the associated tangled vacuum lines on a '97 Civic DX he pulled over for having a modified exhaust. He also noticed the intercooler piping on a parked RSX Type-S. When the sun finally faded into the night, we saw every illegal HID kit.

There's a reason why he didn't issue any tickets. He mainly stops modified vehicles in violation of the California Vehicle Code to make sure the car and parts are legit. Essentially, law enforcement officials are out there to protect us and our prized builds. Granted, there are always a few bad apples with any organization (including our community), but all of the other officers working that day were class acts. They're normal people, just like you and me, going to work every day to provide for their families; not to mention the fact that they put themselves in harm's way for our benefit. Lastly, there is some justice for those stolen car stories and threads out there. A few months prior, the officer pulled over a '00 Si and discovered a stolen motor. The driver was arrested and the car subsequently crushed. Yes, sweet succulent justice was served. I'm just mad I wasn't there to see it. So mind the laws, respect law enforcement, and keep enjoying our passion. And ask yourself the next time you're pulled over: are you being harassed, or are you doing what you know is wrong, hoping to get away with it?

By Jonathan Thompson
48 Articles



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