Guilty American Motorists

Canadian police stop malfunctioning vehicle; American occupants immediately assume 'about to be frisked' position.

  • Published 1 February 2006


When Canadian police stop a malfunctioning vehicle, the American occupants immediately assume an "about to be frisked" position.

An officer of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's highway patrol is cruising for speeders on the TransCanada Highway in Saskatchewan, where the road is straight as an arrow for many miles. He spots a large luxury car with U.S. license plates and signals for the driver to pull over. The car, perhaps a long white Cadillac or Lincoln Continental, is usually said to have Michigan plates. Its occupants supposedly have driven north from Detroit, though in some versions their place of origin is some other notoriously crime-ridden city — generally Chicago, Miami or New York. Both cars stop, and the Mountie walks up to the huge vehicle to speak with the driver. He merely intends to issue a warning about some minor infraction — a loose license plate, for instance, or a burned-out headlight. But all four of the car's doors fly open, and four very large men in dark suits and pointy-toed, expensive shoes slowly emerge. The driver and his three passengers turn to face their car, lean over it, move their legs into the spread-eagle position, and place their hands on top. The Mountie is astonished, as he is not used to the arrest routine of high-crime U.S. cities. And the four men from Detroit are astonished too: They are accustomed to being stopped and given a thorough going-over, not just a summons for a minor violation.

Collected via Brunvand, 1987



As folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand notes, the above-quoted legend has been part of the canon of contemporary lore since at least the mid-1980s. It is an unusual offering in that it serves as an expression of a not uncommon view Canadians hold of the U.S. as a crime-riddled country.

There are two slightly different interpretations of the legend, depending upon how one reads the story. If one assumes the car’s four occupants are bad guys engaged in an unspecified form of illegal activity at the time of their vehicle’s being stopped for having a malfunctioning tail light, the story becomes one of a display of guilt revealing the actual nature of things — the Canadian lawman is twigged to these guys’ being up to something nefarious by their instinctively assuming the “spread your legs and grab the paint job” stance. The bemused Mountie thereby nets himself a fine catch of American bad guys purely by happenstance.

Alternatively, if one assumes the four men in the car hadn’t been up to anything untoward, the story becomes a comment on conditions in the U.S., where crime (according to widespread belief in Canada) runs rampant. Under this interpretation, the four men automatically position themselves to be searched not because they are lawbreakers, but because they are used to dealing with American police — who themselves supposedly have to deal with so many criminals (and so few law-abiding citizens) that they now save time by figuring everyone they stop is a rotter.