The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina has asked the state Division of Motor Vehicles to modify its guidelines for traffic stops to make it clear that drivers have the right to remain silent when a police officer pulls them over.
The General Assembly passed a bill last summer that directed the DMV to rewrite the guidelines that appear in the driver’s license handbook. Legislators said they wanted to prevent misunderstandings between motorists and law enforcement officers by making it clear what’s expected of both during a traffic stop.
But Susanna Birdsong, policy counsel for the ACLU North Carolina, says the guidelines suggest that drivers are required to answer an officer’s questions during a traffic stop, in violation of the constitutional right to remain silent. In a letter emailed to DMV Commissioner Torre Jessup on Monday, Birdsong cited three sentences in particular.
▪ The officer will usually explain why they stopped you and may ask you questions about your trip.
▪ Listen carefully to the officer and follow his or her instructions.
▪ Your cooperation with law enforcement is the best way to ensure that your safety, and that of others, is not compromised during the stop.
“When read together, some of the recommendations seem to suggest to drivers that it’s their duty to respond to officers’ questions and that will ensure their safety,” Birdsong said in an interview. “And those things are not required by the law and may in fact violate their constitutional rights.”
Birdsong asked Jessup to remove the three sentences, or add language that says motorists have the right to remain silent after identifying themselves and providing their license and registration.
Through a spokeswoman, Jessup said Wednesday that he had not had a chance to look at the ACLU letter yet and that he appreciated the organization’s interest and will consider its suggestions. Jessup said the handbook has not been sent to the printer yet, so there is still time to make adjustments.
The DMV has had guidelines for traffic stops in its handbook since at least 1972. But the bill, passed without dissent and signed by Gov. Roy Cooper, gave the agency a chance to update and revise them. The new guidelines provide more context and explanation, explaining not only what to do and not do, but also why and what to expect from the officer.
The General Assembly directed the DMV to consult the State Highway Patrol, the N.C. Sheriff’s Association and the N.C. Association of Chiefs of Police in redrafting the guidelines. Birdsong said the ACLU urged legislators to include civilians in the process as well, and says the lack of their voices helped produce a set of guidelines focused on the responsibilities of drivers and not their rights.
Birdsong concluded her letter by saying it was disappointing that the public was not asked to provide feedback on a policy that was designed to improve relations between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.
“Driver education about driver responsibilities during a traffic stop – without increased law enforcement officer education about implicit bias, de-escalation techniques, and the constitutional rights of drivers themselves – will not solve the problems that this law and resulting policy are attempting to address,” she wrote.