Getting pulled over by police for a motor vehicle violation is a stressful situation for citizens. Believe it or not, it is also a stressful situation for the officer making the stop. People often ask what they should do if they are stopped, and why police officers do certain things when they are making a stop.
From the operator’s point of view there are a few things that are smart to do if you are stopped. Pull to the side of the road in an area safe to do so, and it is a good idea to shut your vehicle off. If it is dark out, turning on the interior lights helps to let the officer see what is happening inside the vehicle which makes the situation safer for everyone. Most importantly, remain inside your vehicle.
Although we don’t expect you to sit completely motionless while waiting for the officer to approach your vehicle, it is a good idea to leave your hands on the steering wheel if you are the operator or visible on your lap if you are a passenger. Too much movement in a vehicle can lead an officer to believe you may be hiding something, reaching for a weapon, or have some other ill intent. The vast majority of the time officers are injured by someone during an encounter, the person’s hands are used to cause the injury. If an officer can see your hands and knows that you are not using them to try and cause injury this makes the whole situation safer for everyone. The officer will usually ask you for your license and registration, at which time it is safe for you to retrieve them. The officer may explain the reason you have been stopped either before or after they have your license and registration.
At the conclusion of the stop, the officer will either issue you a verbal warning, a written warning, or a citation for the alleged violation. If you receive a citation, you have 20 days to either pay or appeal the citation otherwise you risk a license suspension and having the matter turn criminal.
Police officers also do several very specific things when stopping a motor vehicle. Almost everything we do is in the interest of safety: Our safety, and the vehicle occupants’ safety.
Officers will normally start by parking behind you and a little to the left of your vehicle. This forces other traffic to go wide around the entire scene making it less likely for anyone to be struck by a passing vehicle. We will also point every cruiser light we have into your vehicle. This allows us to see any furtive movement and begin gathering information on any condition that could signal danger.
When we approach your car, we will normally stand to the rear of your door. We are often asked why we do this as many people feel that we are treating them like criminals. The simple truth is that we have no idea whether you are a criminal or not. By standing just behind you at the driver side door we force you to turn to speak with us. If you were holding a weapon or had ill intent, it would take you longer to turn, present a weapon, and then use it. This gives officers more time to react and a better chance to survive a potentially lethal encounter.
Officers have to err on the side of safety, and until we are sure otherwise we must assume that at each stop we make the driver or passengers may want to hurt us. As the stop progresses and we have determined that there is a low chance of harm from a vehicle occupant, you may see the officer become more relaxed and step closer to your window making conversation easier. There is also a chance he may remain in the same place for the entire stop. This is not a reflection of what kind of person you are, it is simply an officer showing an abundance of caution and his desire to remain safe.
Officers are sometimes perceived as rude during traffic stops. There are times motorists will claim that the officer simply told them why they were stopped and what they were getting a ticket for. Believe it or not, issuing citations to motorists is not a favorite duty for most police officers. We are well aware the kind of mood it will put you in once you receive a citation and how it will mostly likely ruin your day. We also have no desire to be condescending to you during a traffic stop. Many officers will simply state the facts of the stop, explain what is happening, what you need to do, and move on. This can, sometimes understandably, be interpreted as rude. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to come off as nice while handing someone a citation, however, despite the fact that you don’t like getting the citation, and we are probably not thrilled about giving it to you, it is part of our job. If you feel that the officer did mistreat you the best thing to do is take up the issue with his or her supervisor. This can be done in person at the police station or online. Arguing or becoming belligerent with an officer during a traffic stop can be very dangerous based on the fact that vehicles are continuing to travel in very close proximity. On the other hand, if you have questions of the officer during the stop and ask them respectfully, you will get an honest answer.
A motor vehicle stop is not a happy situation for anyone involved. The bottom line is that if you are stopped by an officer, the safest, most common sense course of action is to do what the officer asks of you. If you do this, everyone will ultimately drive away safely and your time stopped on the side of the road will be minimized.