Response to Raleigh Police Department's Video on Traffic Stop Etiquette

Raleigh Police Release Video About How to Behave During Traffic Stops

Raleigh Police released a video earlier this month entitled “Traffic Stops: What to Expect as a Motorist” as part of its commitment to foster better community-police relations. We had some issues with the video’s overall accuracy from a legal standpoint, and thought it would be a good topic for discussion this week.

The video is meant to dispel common misconceptions about traffic stops, because RPD is regularly asked about proper traffic decorum. There is little reason to doubt that Raleigh’s police department gets many questions about traffic stops, as that is far and away the most common way that civilians and police interact with one another. Our attorneys get asked about traffic issues every single day as well. Furthermore, the video does a pretty good job of breaking down some of the legal obligations of police and motorists alike. For instance, the video correctly states that a police officer must have a reasonable suspicion that a criminal violation is occurring in order to pull someone over. This is why the officer states the reason for pulling the driver over during the video’s simulated traffic stop. Equally sound is the advice for drivers to inform a law enforcement officer if they have a weapon in the vehicle – even if you have a concealed carry permit, you are required to let an officer know you have a gun in your possession as soon as possible during a traffic stop. This is for your safety as well as the officer’s.  Yet while I believe that the Raleigh Police Department was trying to be helpful to the community when making this video, in several places it had a clear bias towards making the job of police easier as opposed to informing citizens of their rights with regards to interactions with the police.

Pretend that you’re driving home after a night on the town and are pulled over by a cop. The officer asks for your license and registration, telling you that you were stopped because you were speeding 51 miles per hour in a 35 mile per hour zone. The officer asks you questions about where you are going and where you are coming from, and then asks you if you’ve had anything to drink tonight. What should you do?

At one point, the video advises citizens who find themselves questioned by police during a traffic stop should answer all questions fully and honestly, this is a stretch of your obligations. If asked by an officer, you are required to provide them with your license and registration. North Carolina doesn’t have a “stop and identify” law on the books (which would allow a police officer to ask you for your identification without reasonable suspicion or probable cause that a criminal violation is occurring), but you are obliged to identify yourself during a lawful traffic stop. Even if the stop itself is unlawful, it is best to go ahead and provide your information – the place to fight an unlawful stop is in the courtroom, not the roadside.

In our hypothetical, should you answer where you are going and where you are coming from? Where you were going and where you were coming from does not assist an officer at all with an investigation into a speeding violation. Further, by providing this information you could be opening yourself up to additional investigation for Driving While Impaired if you admit to coming from a locale that serves alcohol. At this point, you would be allowed to politely, but firmly, refuse to answer those questions. This goes double for questions about whether or not you have been drinking. You are also not obliged to submit to any breath tests at the roadside or any field sobriety tests. While this may well end up with an arrest, it also increases the chances that you will get favorable results at trial. Remember, the less ammunition you can give the police to use against you, the better.

If an officer has probable cause to search your vehicle independent of your consent such as detecting an odor of marijuana or seeing contraband in plain sight, they don’t need a driver’s consent to search the vehicle. Failing to give consent to a search of your vehicle, however, does not give an officer probable cause to search it. During the simulated traffic stop in the video, the officer tells the driver that they are free to leave before asking the driver for consent to search the vehicle. YOU ARE NEVER LEGALLY COMPELLED TO CONSENT TO A SEARCH OF YOUR PERSON, VEHICLE, OR HOME ABSENT A WARRANT OR ADEQUATE PROBABLE CAUSE. Whether you have something illegal in your car or not, it is never a good idea to give police consent to search.

It would take longer than one of our blog posts to fully encompass everything wrong with RPD’s video, but suffice to say, interactions with police during traffic stops are not as clear cut as they’d have you believe. It is crucial that you know your rights and how to properly exercise them.