How US ‘get out of jail free’ cards work


A police union in New York is reportedly cutting back on the number of so-called “get out of jail free” cards given to friends and family. So what are these cards for?

The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA) is reducing how many cards are issued to members, according to the New York Post.

A source told the Post the cutback was ordered to prevent the cards’ sale online.

The plastic cards can be presented to officers to indicate the holder knows another officer, reportedly to “wiggle out of minor trouble”.

But whether they actually spare people tickets for minor infractions such as speeding is a matter of debate.

What are ‘get out of jail free’ cards?

For most, such cards exist only in Monopoly games. And they are popularly known as such because of the game.

Police don’t like that name though, because it implies holders can evade justice.

As well as the PBA, other police unions such as the Detectives’ Endowment Association and the Fraternal Order of Police also issue the cards, which typically expire at the end of every year.

The plastic laminated cards identify to police that the bearer is a friend of law enforcement.

Officers say they are often kept next to the driver’s licence, so they can be produced to an investigating officer along with a mention of which police force issued it.

Police unions, who are very tight-lipped about them, have said they serve as “a public relations tool” and are in no way offer actual immunity.

Asked if the PBA union cards were “get out of jail free” cards, union spokesman Al O’Leary said: “No, they are not.”

What do they get you?

The cards do not entitle its owner to any special rights, but those who use them say they can help avoid traffic and parking tickets, such as red light and speeding violations.

Police officers will sometimes give warnings instead, but will still arrest the card holders for more serious violations, such as drink driving and aggressive speeding.

The decision is purely up to the officer’s discretion.

Former NYPD detective Angel Maysonet told BBC News that card holders do not get any special favours but they can help defuse a tense situation.

“That’s not to say that they didn’t find that card in the floor of a men’s room and stuck it in their wallet either,” said Mr Maysonet, 47.

“So you can never put your guard down totally, but it would kind of put you at ease, to an extent.”

Professor Todd Clear, from the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice, told BBC News that the cards were more widely recognised by police years ago, but lost credibility as more and more got into the public’s hands.

He was personally offered a PBA card from a student over 20 years ago, but chose not to accept it.

“I think it’s a bad idea to have some people be able to show a card and be excused,” said Dr Clear.

“It’s not wise to rely on that card to get you out of trouble,” he said, adding that they are no longer “universally respected” by police.

The cards are sold on websites such as eBay for as much as $200 (£145). Expired ones go for as little as $3.

New York City Councilman Donovan Richards, who chairs the city’s Public Safety Committee, told BBC News that there should be “protocols in place for PBA cards that ensures that there is no abuse in the system”.

Who uses them?

The cards are given to officers to distribute, as well as community leaders such as politicians and religious leaders.

The passes indicate the rank of the officer with a silver or gold badge or medallion, and which union has issued them.

They are also sometimes given to journalists, but some media organisations view them as a conflict of interest, and advise their employees to forgo them.

A spokeswoman for the New York Times tells BBC News that the newspaper’s journalists “are not permitted to seek or accept favours or special treatment from people or institutions they cover, including the police”.

Reporting by Max Matza


What is the experience of readers?

These are very common here in the US. My detective neighbour gave me one once in case I wanted to “open up” my motorcycle on the highway. I was once pulled over driving to work. As I am British, I actually struggled to use the card when it came time to hand it to the officer with my licence. There’s a technique – you place it under the licence card. I just couldn’t do it, it felt wrong, and I got points on my licence as a result. I won’t make that mistake again. What’s worse are the gold badges that people buy from the police (for $3-5k) and put in their windscreens. This is a badge which shows that you contribute financially to the police. My friend who has one of these and does not want to wear his seat-belt around town – for some unknown reason – has never been stopped and moreover has actually been waved through a police checkpoint without his seat-belt on. A Barron

While attending law school, a colleague from New York City indicated her fiancé owned a police equipment store and he gifted to her a small medallion that could be pinned on her driver’s license or in her wallet. She referred to it as a “get out of jail free card”. It appeared to be metal, approximately 2 square centimeters. She indicated the medallions were only issued to police officers for use by their family members. She told me how the police stopped her for speeding several times in New York state and each time she offered the pin with her driver’s license and specifically told the officer, “This is a get out of jail free card.” Each officer asked her who she knew in the police department and then let her go with no tickets. R Nelson

When I was a child in the 1950s growing up in NYC I recall that my father had New York State license plates on our cars that began with -4N- a special code that indicated “police friendly.” Apparently it signalled to the police that my father was to be left alone, something he told me he had to pay for! R Fogel



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