North Carolina’s 98-page driver’s handbook can teach how to deal with school-bus stops, funeral processions and railroad crossings – but it won’t tell you how to act during a police traffic stop.
Four state lawmakers want to change that and add traffic-stop advice to both the handbook and the state’s driver education curriculum. This week, they filed House Bill 21, which calls for the state Division of Motor Vehicles to develop guidelines along with the State Highway Patrol and two law-enforcement associations.
The goal is to reduce misunderstandings between drivers and law enforcement. The bill comes in the wake of several traffic stops around the country that resulted in either a police officer or the driver being shot. Having drivers follow standard protocols could avoid situations in which a police officer thinks a driver is reaching for a weapon, for example.
“It may save some lives. It may eliminate the possibility of running into a problem,” said Rep. Ken Goodman, a Rockingham Democrat who sponsored the bill with Rep. Beverly Earle, a Charlotte Democrat, and Republican Reps. Allen McNeill of Asheboro and John Faircloth of High Point. McNeill is a former sheriff’s deputy.
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“Take a young person who does not know they shouldn’t try to get out of the car,” Goodman added.
Eddie Caldwell of the N.C. Sheriff’s Association said his group hasn’t yet taken a formal position on the bill but it “looks like a very positive bill.”
“When you look into a situation where there has been some malfunction, the facts tend to show that something that appeared one way to the officer appeared different to the driver,” Caldwell said. “Having a recommended procedure that all drivers follow should reduce the number of those situations.”
Caldwell said his group hasn’t developed any guidelines of its own yet. But some law enforcement agencies have offered advice to drivers. The Raleigh Police Department produced a video about traffic-stop etiquette last year.
Among the tips from Raleigh police: Stop your car as far from traffic as you safely can. Keep your hands on the steering wheel where the officer can see them. Don’t reach for your license and registration until the officer tells you to.
The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina says it’s hopeful the guidelines will go beyond what law-enforcement agencies want from drivers.
“It’s important for North Carolinians to know what police are going to expect from them, but it’s equally important that people know their rights when stopped by police,” said Sarah Gillooly, policy director for the ACLU.
The ACLU has its own online guide to police traffic stops. It tells people they have the right to remain silent when questioned by police, that drivers have the right to refuse to let an officer search their car and that drivers can ask police if they’re free to leave.
A Virginia legislator filed a similar traffic-stop education bill this month. Goodman said he’s hopeful the North Carolina proposal will pass this year, and he’s talked to a senator who’s planning a companion bill in that chamber.
“I think it’s going to get very strong support,” he said.
Police advice for drivers during traffic stops
▪ Try to stop as far away from traffic as you safely can.
▪ Put your hands on the steering wheel and ask your passengers to keep their hands visible. Don’t get out of your car unless the officer asks you to.
▪ If you have any weapons in the car, you should immediately tell the officer about them and where they are.
▪ To avoid any misunderstanding about your movements, wait until the officer asks you for your registration and license before reaching for them.
▪ Make sure to give the officer personal space and don’t approach him or her too closely.
▪ If you think the officer is mistreating you, file a complaint with the law-enforcement agency’s internal affairs division.