Caught: How to Respond to a Traffic Stop

Caught: How to Respond to a Traffic Stop

Traffic stops can be stressful. The key is to remain calm, cool, and collected. These tips will help you get through any routine traffic stop.

It’s happened to everyone at least once: you’ve been driving a too fast, realized a little too late that you just passed a stop sign, or thought for sure you could beat that yellow light before it turns red. The next thing you know, you hear sirens and see blinking lights in your rearview mirror. You’re being pulled over by a police officer for a traffic infraction.

There’s no denying that being pulled over by a police officer for a traffic stop is a stressful situation, however, it is important to remain calm and avoid acting in any way that would make a police officer feel surprised or threatened.

Pulling Over

Realizing that you are being pulled over can be shocking, and it’s easy to forget what you should be doing next. The Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles has some advice for what you should do to in the event you’re pulled over for a traffic stop:

  • Do not ignore a police officer that is signaling for you to pull over or pretend that you did not see it. This might escalate a standard traffic stop and increase an officer’s suspicions.
  • Do not stop in an intersection, in front of a driveway, or in any driving lane. Stopping in traffic can be dangerous for you, the officer, and any other drivers on the road.
  • Turn on your right-turn signal, check your mirrors, and move to the side of the road to park when it is safe to do so. If the officer doesn’t stop and passes your vehicle, you may return to the road after making sure it is safe.
  • If an officer directs you to stop in a certain place, proceed where directed instead of immediately pulling over.
  • Upon stopping, put your vehicle in park, turn on your hazard lights, and turn off your car.
  • Drivers and passengers should remain in the vehicle until instructed to exit.
  • Roll down the driver side window completely once stopped.

During the Stop

Once completely stopped, make sure that you and any passengers keep your hands in plain sight to let the officer know that you are not reaching for an object or holding anything that may raise suspicions or be perceived as a threat.

Though you might expect that the officer will ask you for your license and registration, as well as any other documents, do not present any documents until you are asked. Unexpected or sudden movement, such as reaching for documentation, could be interpreted as a threat and escalate a routine traffic stop into an unnecessarily dangerous situation. Avoid reaching under a seat and keeping your hands in areas of the vehicle that are unlit or otherwise obscured.

Avoid presenting documents in a wallet or folder. While these could protect important documents in most situations, they could also obscure important information that an officer needs to access.

Always wait for and follow the officer’s requests for information and directions for how to present it to him or her.

Make sure to remain inside your vehicle for the entire duration of the stop, especially while an officer is returning to their vehicle. Again, exiting your vehicle while an officer’s back is turned to you can be seen as confrontational and may result in an escalation with the officer reacting in self-defense to your perceived threat. If you have questions regarding your stop, wait for the officer to return to your vehicle. If you find documentation that the officer requested that you could not find earlier, instead of handing it to the officer, hold the documents outside of your driver’s side window until the officer returns.

Receiving a Ticket

Once an officer returns to your car, you’ll be notified whether or not you have been issued a traffic ticket. If the officer gives you a citation, do not argue. Once a ticket has been issued, an officer must file it and cannot take it back or change his or her mind. If you believe that a ticket has been wrongfully issued to you, you will be able to challenge the citation in court.

After your stop, the officer will indicate that you are free to go. Use your left-hand turn signal, check your mirrors, and return to the driving lane safely.

If you believe that you are stopped based on your gender or ethnicity, take note of the department or agency of the officer and file a report afterward.

If you receive a citation, particularly if you’re driving a company vehicle, report it to your fleet manager or HR as stipulated in your fleet policy. Depending on the severity of the ticket, you may be required to undergo remedial driving training. If the ticket is a so-called “fix-it” ticket issued because of a mechanical issue, e.g., a broken taillight, make sure that, per fleet policy, you have it repaired as soon as possible.

While a traffic stop can be a stressful situation for any driver, following these tips and keeping a cool head can help the process run more smoothly, and help you get back on the road more quickly.

Drive Safely!

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