The topic of police encounters has overtaken the media recently. Readers, I asked a retired police officer the following question: “What do I do if I am stopped by the police?” Here’s his practical advice and perspective:
First of all remain calm. If you have any concerns about your safety or the legality of the stop, obey all traffic laws and drive to a well-lit public place then stop for the police. When they ask why you didn’t stop immediately then tell them. You can also call the local police dispatch and tell them the situation to insure that the person pulling you over is legitimate.
You will be approached by the officer on your driver’s side or the passenger side of your vehicle and asked for your driver’s license, vehicle registration, and proof of vehicle insurance so think about where those items are. Keep your hands where the officer can see them and don’t make any sudden moves. Be aware that the officer will be justifiably cautious and doesn’t know you or what you have in your vehicle. He or she will tell you the reason for the stop at some point during the encounter but maybe not during the initial contact. If you are courteous and respectful to the officer then he or she will likely be to you as well.
Things to keep in mind about your encounter with law enforcement:
1. There are many traffic laws on the books that when violated give an officer legal probable cause to stop your vehicle and check your license, registration, and insurance. They range from very minor infractions such as missing license plates, faulty vehicle lights, or a cracked windshield, to moving violations and more serious offenses. Don’t escalate things by being uncooperative and disruptive. There have been many cases where a minor traffic stop, which would have likely resulted in a warning or meager fine, turned into an avoidable felony or even fatal encounter.
2. Being cooperative doesn’t mean admitting guilt.
3. Know that you do not have to consent to a search of your vehicle but in some situations an officer can legally make the search without your consent.
4. If you disagree with the legality of the stop or the officer’s actions the place to challenge the issue is not on the street with an armed police officer but in court in front of a judge or through other legal means. Additional options are that you can complain to the officer’s chain of command or the internal affairs unit of the police department. You can contact your local government official such as the city council or county commissioners. You can contact the news media about your issue.
5. Make sure you write down what happened as soon as possible and if there are witnesses then make sure you have their names and statements as well. Be as detailed as possible about what the officer did or didn’t do and their demeanor. Note where the stop took place as there may be video cameras in the area which could support your claim. Take photographs of any injuries or damage and consider seeking medical attention if needed. You can request a copy of the police report after the incident.
6. Finally you can contact an attorney for more advice on all the above.
Keep in mind that being a police officer is a dangerous occupation and that over 100 officers are killed in the line of duty each year. The officer you are dealing with knows this and receives ongoing officer training in officer safety.