When you get pulled over by a police officer, should you get your car registration out of the glove box and have it ready when he gets to your window?
If you’re supposed to keep your hands on the wheel, where should your passengers put theirs?
What should you do if there’s not a good, safe place to pull over?
Updated answers to these and many other questions about what to do when you see blue lights in your rear-view mirror will appear in the newest version of the state driver license handbook out this year.
The General Assembly ordered the Division of Motor Vehicles to revise its guidelines for traffic stops and directed the state Department of Public Instruction to include the guidelines in the driver’s education curriculum taught to high school students.
Rep. Ken Goodman, one of four main sponsors of the bill, says he introduced it to try to prevent misunderstandings that can turn a routine traffic stop into a confrontation. Goodman said he was inspired to draft the bill after watching a story on the evening news about a traffic stop that resulted in a shooting.
“I thought, ‘People just don’t know what you’re supposed to do,’” said Goodman, a Democrat from Rockingham. “I just think that it could save lives of drivers or police officers or both.”
The DMV has had guidelines for traffic stops in its handbook since at least 1972. But the bill gave the agency a chance to update and revise them with the help of law enforcement agencies. The General Assembly directed DMV to consult the State Highway Patrol, the N.C. Sheriff’s Association and the N.C. Association of Chiefs of Police.
The goal was to make the guidelines practical, easy to understand and intuitive, said Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president and general counsel of the sheriff’s association.
“We wanted to be as simplistic as possible, because we knew that drivers would not be reading the handbook in the middle of the traffic stop,” Caldwell said. “So the idea is you would read it and it would be instruction that was relatively commonsensical and easy to remember.”
At the same time, there’s more context and explanation than before. The new guidelines not only list what to do and not do, but also why and what to expect from the officer.
For example, the old guidelines say, “If at night, activate the vehicle’s interior light.” The new entry reads: “If it is nighttime, the officer may direct a spotlight at your vehicle once stopped. To assist with visibility, turn on your interior lights as soon as you stop to help the officer see inside your vehicle.”
“If you compare the previous version to the new version, you will see that there was room for improvement,” Caldwell said.
Some of the police shootings that have made headlines and prompted demonstrations across the country in recent years began with traffic stops. In one particularly high-profile case in July 2016, police officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Philando Castile as Castile was reaching for his wallet during a traffic stop in suburban Minneapolis that was recorded by Castile’s girlfriend.
Castile had told the officer that he was licensed to carry a gun and had one with him. Yanez testified that he thought Castile was reaching for it when he fired seven shots into the car. Yanez was acquitted by a jury.
Law enforcement officers are often reminded of the dangers of a seemingly routine traffic stop. Within a week in November, a state trooper in Texas and a local police officer in Western Pennsylvania were killed by motorists they had pulled over.
The new guidelines reflect the heightened tensions surrounding interactions between law enforcement officers and the public. Rep. Beverly Earle, one of the bill’s main sponsors, describes herself as “old school” and inclined to reach for her purse to get her license and registration as the officer approaches her car.
“You don’t do that anymore,” said Earle, a Democrat from Charlotte. The new guidelines say that if the license and registration aren’t readily available to wait for the officer to ask you to get them out.
“If you respond appropriately, everybody may go home at the end of the day,” Earle said.
The new guidelines will appear in the new edition of the handbook that will be available on the DMV’s website and in driver’s license offices across the state.
As for those questions at the top of this article, here they are again with the answers:
▪ When you get pulled over by a police officer, should you get your car registration out of the glove box and have it ready when he gets to your window? No. The officer won’t know what you’re trying to get from the glove box. Wait until he or she asks for your registration.
▪ If you’re supposed to keep your hands on the wheel, where should your passengers put theirs? Passengers should keep their hands where an officer can see them. Front-seat passengers can keep their hands on their lap. Back-seat passengers should put their hands on the seat in front of them.
▪ What should you do if there’s not a good, safe place to pull over? Turn on your flashers and slow down about 10 mph to signal to the officer that you plan to pull over. Then look for the first safe place to do it on the right side of the road.
What motorists should do when stopped by law enforcement
The following guidelines will appear in the N.C. driver’s license handbook later this year (emphasis is from the DMV):
Law enforcement officers conduct traffic stops because they observe a traffic violation or are conducting a police investigation. Being stopped by a law enforcement officer can be a stressful experience but knowing what to do during the stop will help ensure your safety, the safety of other motorists, and the safety of the officer.
▪ When you see emergency lights and/or hear a siren behind you, stay calm, activate your turn signal, pull the vehicle to the right, and off the travel portion of the highway at the nearest point where it is safe to do so.
▪ If there is not an obvious safe place to immediately stop the vehicle, turn on your emergency 4 way flashers and reduce your speed (by about 10 mph) to signal to the officer that you are aware of his or her presence. Continue driving and obey all traffic laws until you reach the nearest safe area to stop your vehicle.
▪ If an unmarked car is stopping you and you have a legitimate question or concern as to whether or not you are being stopped by an actual law enforcement officer, you may call 911 to report your name and location in order to verify that an actual law enforcement officer is conducting the traffic stop.
▪ After the vehicle stops, the driver should place the vehicle in “Park,” roll down the window, turn off the engine, and turn off any electronic devices and/or radio so that the driver can easily communicate with the officer. The driver and all passengers should remain seated in the vehicle. An officer may approach your vehicle on the driver or passenger side for safety reasons. DO NOT remove your seat belt unless asked to do so by the officer.
▪ The driver should place both hands on the steering wheel and instruct any passengers to keep their hands in a position that is clearly visible to the officer at all times. Passengers in the back seat should place their hands on the back of the front seat. Keep your hands in plain view.
▪ If it is nighttime, the officer may direct a spotlight at your vehicle once stopped. To assist with visibility, turn on your interior lights as soon as you stop to help the officer see inside your vehicle.
▪ The officer will usually explain why they stopped you and may ask you questions about your trip. If the officer is not in uniform they will show you their law enforcement credentials or you may ask to see them.
▪ If there is a firearm or other weapon in the vehicle, DO NOT attempt to reach for the weapon. Instead, tell the law enforcement officer when he or she approaches the vehicle that there is a weapon in the vehicle. Describe the type of weapon and inform the officer where the weapon is located. If you have a concealed handgun permit, you MUST also inform the officer of that fact.
▪ DO NOT exit the vehicle or allow any passengers to exit the vehicle unless instructed to do so by the officer.
▪ If your driver license and/or vehicle registration is not readily accessible, do not reach under the seats and do not open the glove box or other compartments and begin searching for your license or registration unless you are asked to do so by the officer. Remain calm and refrain from engaging in sudden or unnecessary movements during the traffic stop.
▪ Do not talk on a cell phone while interacting with the officer during the stop. The officer has to be able to give you and your passengers detailed instructions so you will understand what is expected of you. If you receive a telephone call during the traffic stop, the officer will tell you whether or not to answer the telephone call.
▪ Listen carefully to the officer and follow his or her instructions. Give the officer your full attention. If you do not understand an instruction, calmly inform the officer that you do not understand the instruction and ask him or her to repeat or explain their instruction.
▪ When the officer completes their interaction with you they may issue a warning or a traffic ticket which may include a fine. The officer will typically explain whatever action is being taken. If you have questions, respectfully ask the officer to clarify. If you disagree with the officer’s decision to issue a traffic ticket, do not prolong the contact by arguing with the officer. If you wish to contest the ticket, you will have the opportunity to explain your point of view of what happened in court. Your acceptance and signature on a traffic ticket is not an admission of guilt.
▪ Some traffic stops may result in an arrest. Even if you disagree with the officer, do not argue with the officer. You will have your chance to present your case in court. Resisting, delaying or obstructing a law enforcement officer during a traffic stop is a class 2 misdemeanor. N.C.G.S. §14-223.
▪ If you believe the officer acted inappropriately, document the officer’s behavior and report it to the officer’s agency in a timely manner. The name of the officer and law enforcement agency will be on the ticket or you may ask the officer to provide this information.
The Law Enforcement Officer
▪ The officer will initiate a traffic stop by turning on the blue lights and/or siren. The officer is also gathering information from your vehicle’s license tag and checking the area for a safe place to conduct the traffic stop.
▪ The officer will approach your vehicle and will identify himself or herself, his or her agency and the reason for the traffic stop. Many times the officer will ask if you have any reason for committing the traffic violation.
▪ The officer will ask for your driver license and the vehicle registration. If the information from your driver license and the vehicle information does not match, you may be asked a series of questions.
▪ It is the goal of law enforcement to protect the public and conduct traffic stops in a manner that protects the safety of everyone involved. Your cooperation with law enforcement is the best way to ensure that your safety, and that of others, is not compromised during the stop.
Source: N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles