The new version of the state driver's license handbook will make it clear that drivers have the right to remain silent after they've identified themselves to a law enforcement officer who has pulled them over.
The change follows a complaint by the American Civil Liberties Union that an earlier version of the guidelines for traffic stops suggested that drivers are required to answer an officer's questions, including about where they're going or why.
The General Assembly directed the Division of Motor Vehicles to rewrite the guidelines in the driver’s license handbook to try to prevent misunderstandings between motorists and law enforcement officers by explaining what’s expected of both during a traffic stop. The bill followed several incidents around the country where routine stops escalated into violence.
But as a draft circulated this winter, the ACLU of North Carolina sent a letter to DMV Commissioner Torre Jessup urging that three sentences be excluded. Taken together, the sentences suggested that drivers are required to answer an officer’s questions during a traffic stop, in violation of the constitutional right to remain silent, said Susanna Birdsong, policy counsel for the ACLU of North Carolina.
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Those three sentences remain in the updated version, though a key three-word phrase was removed from one. And the DMV also added two sentences that clarify what a driver must do when an officer begins speaking — and what they don't have to do.
"Under state law, you are required to identify yourself and provide your driver's license and registration for the vehicle," the guidelines say. "After establishing identification, you may choose whether or not to verbally respond to additional questions."
The revised version of the guidelines has the support of the State Highway Patrol, the N.C. Sheriff’s Association and the N.C. Association of Chiefs of Police, said DMV spokeswoman Marge Howell. The three law enforcement organizations helped DMV draft the original version.
Printing of the new driver's license handbook should begin in the next few days, Howell said, and the first copies will be available in two to three weeks. It will also be available online at www.ncdot.gov/DMV/.
Birdsong said the legislation that ordered the rewrite of the traffic stop guidelines seemed to be based on the false assumption that misunderstandings could be avoided if only drivers knew what to do and how to act. The first draft, she said, emphasized a driver's responsibilities but neglected to mention his or her rights.
In her letter to DMV Commissioner Jessup in January, Birdsong recommended that the guidelines be changed by eliminating particular sentences, such as:
▪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.
▪ The officer will usually explain why they stopped you and may ask you questions about your trip.
All but that last phrase — "about your trip" — remain in the final version of the guidelines. But eliminating those words was an important change, Birdsong said, because they imply that a driver must answer questions about where they've been, where they're going and why.
The ACLU is pleased the DMV was willing to make the changes it did, Birdsong said, but overall the emphasis remains on the driver's actions and not on other factors that can lead to problems during a traffic stop. She said more should be done to train law enforcement officers in avoiding unnecessary confrontations and in recognizing and eliminating unconscious biases.
“I appreciate the effort to provide information about what drivers should do during a traffic stop, but it cannot stop there,” Birdsong said.