Traffic stops: Stay smart, calm and safe
Blue lights are no one’s favorite vision in a rearview mirror. Tickets are expensive and embarrassing. Red-faced drivers may dread confessing that they forgot their ID. And officers and citizens all know that any simple encounter can turn deadly in the wrong circumstances.
So what’s a driver to do?
Being calm and respectful will go a long way toward making a traffic stop easier and safer for everyone involved.
Earle Farrell, the public information officer for the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office, answered our request for commonsense do’s and don’ts when pulled over for a traffic stop.
• Show that you’re not a threat. Stay put unless asked to exit the vehicle. Keep your hands in clear sight as the officer approaches the vehicle and throughout the encounter (don’t put your hands in pockets).
“This is for your safety as much as for theirs,” Farrell said. “You could be reaching for a weapon.”
Also move slowly and communicate what you are doing. Pass along relevant information, too; if the driver’s window or door doesn’t function, say so.
• Roll down your window if asked. Roll it down all the way if necessary. In many circumstances, an officer can get a search warrant to access the car’s interior and/or use a trained drug dog to determine if the car contains dangerous or illegal substances. Be aware that resisting this order can lead to an expensive broken window, a long detention time and/or an arrest.
• Exit the vehicle if instructed. If you are asked to exit, get out and choose a comfortable distance between you and the officer; looming too close can be considered a threat. Definitely don’t reach out to touch the officer, even on the arm or shoulder. Choose to cooperate and communicate whenever possible.
Be smart about your options in this scenario. A few weeks ago in Arlington, an officer pulled over a vehicle with a license plate linked to a wanted person, Farrell said. The male and female in the car refused to get out as instructed, so a SWAT team deployed and let the couple know they could outlast the duo or break out a window and remove them if needed.
“You want to cooperate, especially in today’s climate,” Farrell said.
• Have your up-to-date proof of auto insurance and vehicle registration handy. If you need to reach into a wallet, purse, center console or glove compartment to retrieve it, let the officer know in advance. (It’s not always immediately evident whether a driver does or doesn’t have a weapon, and they have reasons to be cautious.) Don’t needlessly escalate.
“The last thing you want them to do is be fearful for their lives,” he said.
Be aware that Tennessee law now says it’s within the officer’s discretion to impound a vehicle if the driver has no proof of insurance or driver’s license, Farrell said. However, it’s something the SCSO is reluctant to enforce for someone who may have just forgotten a wallet and now has to figure out how to get home without a vehicle. Deputies typically just issue citations.
• Show your driver’s license on request. Some motorists think they can refuse, but Farrell said having and providing the license is a requirement for operating a vehicle.
“If you don’t hand the officer an ID, they will call for backup and they’re going to arrest you,” he said.
• Stay put and don’t panic. If you don’t have your required license, insurance or registration, stay on the scene. Turning the car around and bolting off in another direction doesn’t help.
A driver with a citation can go to court, show the license, insurance and/or registration, and the court will dismiss the charge, Farrell said.
Leaving the scene immediately raises suspicions that something serious is wrong. Farrell recalled one incident where an officer noticed a driver looking back and doing a speedy turn away. The officer followed, ran the license plate and identified the car as stolen. The suspect ended up in custody off Shelby Drive near Riverdale in southeast Memphis.
• Pick your battles. The shoulder of the road is not the right place to argue about personal rights or differences of opinion on the facts. Save it for court. People can state their rights and their decisions not to consent to searches or further questioning, but they shouldn’t resist if overruled by the officer.
• Document the encounter if you like. Citizens have the right to audiotape or videotape a traffic stop if concerned for their own safety or their rights. This is perfectly legal, Farrell said, although some officers don’t like it and may react in a way that probably isn’t calm and collected.
• Answer commonsense questions to help shorten the traffic stop. “If you don’t produce an ID and refuse to answer questions, they can detain you,” Farrell said.
• Pick your battles. The shoulder of the road is not the right venue for arguing. That’s what courts are for. People who assert their rights but are overruled by the officer shouldn’t resist.
• Understand what’s happening. An officer will say so if you are being arrested. You will be read your Miranda rights, get handcuffed and be driven to jail. An officer doesn’t even have to tell you immediately what the charges are, Farrell said, because any relevant charges will be filed.
A person who is being detained can legally be handcuffed and put in the officer’s car for safety; this doesn’t mean a person is being arrested, he said. A person being detained can be questioned.
Technically it’s considered “resisting” if a person doesn’t obey instructions from law enforcement officers, Farrell said.
Often when people put up resistance, it’s because alcohol is involved. “Their judgment is impaired, and they become belligerent,” he said. "And we all know people who don’t want to do anything people tell them to do. That doesn’t work when you’re dealing with law enforcement."
He added, “You can always get to court and plead your case when you get to court.”
• Know your rights. Citizens can ask the officer to bring a supervisor to the scene if desired for their safety or peace of mind. They also can ask for the officer’s badge number and name (often visible on his uniform).
Officers are trained to call an officer of the same gender as the suspect to perform any necessary pat-downs, but citizens can always ask for this.
• Just be calm and courteous. “It’s just common sense,” Farrell said. "If you go into a store and you’re confrontational with a clerk, they’re going to be confrontational too. It’s how you treat people ... tone of voice and manner."