Road Worrier Blog

Road Worrier: Raleigh traffic-stop video blends police preferences and drivers’ rights

A driver rolls through a stop sign. A cop is on his tail right away – siren whooping, blue lights blinking.

What will the officer do in a traffic stop – and how should the driver respond? The Raleigh Police Department makes clear, in an eight-minute video simulation, how the police would like us to behave.

And what are our legal rights in a traffic stop? Not entirely clear in this police dramatization.

“Remain calm and pull over. Put your hands on the steering wheel.” The instructions flash on the screen, underlining the main points of a narration by Raleigh Police Capt. Michael Bruce.

The driver objects mildly to news that he is about to be ticketed for running that stop sign. But he is a model of obedience.

The video was produced for discussion at community meetings Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown held in December and January. It has logged more than 8,700 views on YouTube since then.

Alyson Grine, a UNC-Chapel Hill criminal law expert, gives the Raleigh Police Department good marks for responding to questions about traffic stops. But while the video addresses important matters about how officers should behave, she says, it misfires on some legal issues.

“The goal of having increased communication with citizens is a laudable one,” Grine told the Road Worrier. “If they’re putting information out to citizens regarding their legal obligations, we should make sure that the citizens know what the actual state of the law is on that.”

Grine flashes a yellow caution light for one of the Raleigh police video’s central messages: “Answer any questions the officer has.”

Actually, state law requires drivers only to identify themselves and hand over their driver’s license and registration. They don’t have to say anything else.

“While a driver may want to answer an officer’s questions to expedite the stop, he or she has the right to remain silent,” Grine wrote in a recent blog post critique.

Grine is the “defender educator” at the UNC School of Government, where much of her work involves training public defenders and other lawyers who represent poor people accused of crimes. She is the author of criminal case manuals on pretrial proceedings and issues involving race.

Racial disparities

Speaking of which, she notes North Carolina statistics showing that black and Hispanic drivers are almost twice as likely as whites to be searched during traffic stops. Sure enough, that’s what happens to the African-American driver in the Raleigh video.

The unexplained search begins after the driver receives his stop-sign ticket. The narrator says drivers should do what they are told: “Follow the officer’s instructions about getting out (of the car), and what to do once you are out,” Bruce says in the video.

“OK, sure, that’s no problem,” the driver replies when the white Raleigh police officer asks him to step to the rear of the car.

“For safety, the officer may ask to pat your clothing,” the video caption says. “The officer may ask to search your vehicle.”

Then, with his hands behind his back, the driver is frisked. Before searching his car, the officer asks the man to sit down on the curb with his legs straight out and crossed at the ankles and to place his hands on his knees.

“Like this?” the driver replies.

The narrator does mention that drivers “have the right to permit or to refuse such a search” and they can stop a search even after it has begun.

But Grine says drivers don’t always realize they can say no.

“It can be an intimidating situation for a driver to be confronted with an armed, uniformed officer. They may not truly understand they are free to leave at that point” after they have received the traffic ticket, Grine said.

That’s backed up, she said, by studies showing that drivers are less likely to agree to a search when they are asked to sign a consent form stating that they know they can refuse.

Recent court rulings, including a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court case called Rodriguez vs. United States, have clamped limits on police discretion in such cases. The officer must have “reasonable suspicion of criminal activity” to justify frisking a driver and searching the car, she said.

“In essence, the Supreme Court is telling us these routine traffic stops should be used to enforce the motor vehicle laws and keep the roads safe,” Grine said. “But we shouldn’t have drivers stopped for speeding sitting on the side of the road while the officer calls for backup and drug dogs and questions the driver about unrelated things.”

Jim Sughrue, a Raleigh Police Department spokesman, said the video represents the department’s best effort “in a real short piece, to put forward some of the things that could happen, in some circumstances, during a traffic stop.”

He said police officials did not try to raise – or avoid – racial issues regarding traffic stops, and did not intend to suggest that drivers must provide more information than the law requires.

“Sometimes when you’re trying to be helpful, you wind up being less than perfect,” Sughrue said. “I think there’s a lot of helpful information on the video.”

He acknowledged that court rulings have changed how officers perform traffic stops.

“Our officers are always updated on court decisions that affect what they do,” Sughrue said. “They are trained and expected to follow the law.”