Picture yourself driving down Highway 101, and suddenly the familiar flashing red-and-blue lights appear in your rearview mirror.
The butterflies build in your stomach as you ask yourself, “Am I being pulled over?”
Sadly, yes, it appears your day is being interrupted by a traffic stop. As you rack your brain for what you might have done, you simultaneously try to navigate rush-hour traffic to find a safe spot to pull over. Once you see the officer exit his vehicle and approach, hand resting on his holstered duty weapon, you know this could end in a ticket — or much worse if you don’t play your cards right.
Traffic stops can be one of the most stressful interactions a driver will have with a police officer.
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For officers, it can be one of the most dangerous. Combined, it creates a situation where everyone’s on edge, and emotions can get the best of either party.
Despite freedom of speech and constitutional rights that protect motorists from things such as unwarranted search and seizure, local attorneys and the American Civil Liberties Union point out that many of those rights are only good until an officer fears for his or her safety or for the safety of the public.
Local police officers also say they have a mandate to enforce the law and undergo extensive training to de-escalate situations.
Where both sides agree is that the best plan is to comply with officers and remember that the side of the road is not the place to hold court.
Cost and risk
As the old saying goes, if you don’t know your rights, you don’t have any.
While that may be the case, asserting your rights in a tense situation and hindering an officer from performing his or her job can still land you in jail.
“In some ways, there’s not a lot of definitive guidance,” said Kara Stein-Conaway, a San Luis Obispo attorney with the law firm Stein, Casciola and Galambos. “In the end, it’s usually left to the attorneys to argue if a crime was committed.”
Officers are granted a lot of leeway in making split-second decisions, Stein-Conaway said, and whether a jury finds that a civilian’s rights were violated often depends on how a community perceives its police officers.
But simply asking an officer questions is protected speech.
Stein-Conaway points to a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, City of Houston, Texas v. Hill, that noted that “freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state.”
“Failure to comply immediately and instantaneously is not failure to comply,” Stein-Conaway said. “You can ask why. That’s not a violation of their order.”
Of course, threatening an officer is not protected and will almost certainly get a person arrested for a felony.
There is a point where arguing with an officer will keep them from doing their job, she said, and can result in an arrest under two sections of the California penal code: resisting a peace officer and trying to prevent an executive officer from his or her duty.
However, prosecutors must also prove the officer was acting within his or her duties and following procedure.
“A peace officer is not lawfully performing his or her duties if he or she is unlawfully arresting or detaining someone or using unreasonable excessive force when making or attempting to make an otherwise lawful arrest or detention,” the law reads.
An officer who lawfully detains a motorist may legally direct all occupants out of the vehicle for various reasons.
Doing so, however, does not by itself justify a full field search, and officers are given other independent bases to search for weapons and protect themselves from danger, according to a ruling in another U.S. Supreme Court case from 1998.
Ultimately, the best practice is to comply and let the courts sort it out. But that process can be very costly.
“It’s a cost and risk (situation) which can be very expensive to members of the public,” Stein-Conaway said. “Police, if they’re unable to sustain a conviction, they just kind of lose the case. The risks are all on the citizen.”
‘It’s all subjective’
Gloria Browne-Marshall, a constitutional law professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said there also is a racial component that plays a role in whether a person is pulled over in the first place — and how the interaction will play out.
As an instructor who has taught students studying law enforcement, Browne-Marshall said she has seen some of the lessons go out the window once that student attends a police academy.
“They’ve told me that they will follow an individual until they get nervous and make a mistake. And that is the least dirty. I’ve had (officers) follow me at night with their lights off,” said Browne-Marshall, who is African-American.
She agreed that the best practice to stay safe during a stop is to comply with an officer so long as your rights are not clearly being violated.
Even then, she said, the control lies in the officer’s hands.
“It’s all subjective to a certain degree,” she said.
The vast majority of traffic stops are for simple infractions, police say, and hardly worth the repercussions of being overzealous in asserting your rights.
“Bottom line, if you want life to be simple, say, ‘yes, sir,’ ‘no, sir,’ and your life will be simple,” said attorney Jeff Stein, a partner in Stein-Conaway’s law firm. “Let the attorneys decide what is lawful.”
A ‘360 environment’
Lt. Mike Brown of the California Highway Patrol’s Coastal Division in San Luis Obispo said his officers make a number of traffic stops a day, each different from the preceding one.
“Traffic stops are the most dangerous thing an officer does on a daily basis,” Brown said. “You have no idea what you’re walking into.”
Brown said, statistically speaking, most stops end successfully — i.e., safely — and often end without a citation.
“But there is that element; we have to make that initial approach thinking this person wants to do harm to us,” he said.
Brown said this as he wore a black band around his badge in honor of Hayward police Sgt. Scott Lunger, 48, who on July 22 stopped a motorist and was shot to death as he approached the vehicle. The suspect was wounded and later captured.
Locally, a few traffic stops also have ended violently. An infamous 1988 traffic stop on Highway 101 in Paso Robles resulted in a shootout between CHP officers and two brothers wanted for murder in the death of a police officer in Florida. Both men were wounded in the shootout.
In October 2012, a traffic stop in Paso Robles led to a foot chase and an intense gunbattle between a suspected San Diego gang member and a CHP officer in a dark alley that left the suspect with seven gunshot wounds and the officer with three. Both survived and the suspect was later sentenced to nearly 65 years in prison.
It’s a “360 (degree) environment” during stops, Brown said, and officers are not only paying attention to the actions of the driver and any passengers but also to the surroundings.
Asked about the line between arguing and breaking the law, Brown said it’s crossed when a motorist becomes unreasonable and poses a threat.
Simply voicing disagreement over a ticket does not in and of itself pose a threat, but debating its merits with an officer can.
“If you feel like you don’t deserve the ticket, that’s OK. By signing it, you’re simply promising to appear (in court), not admitting to a crime,” Brown said. “There’s a process in place. That process is not right there on the side of the road.”
Brown said if a motorist feels an officer is way off-base, the driver can always ask to speak to a supervisor.
San Luis Obispo County Senior Sheriff’s Deputy Nate Paul said the Sheriff’s Office has a somewhat different experience with traffic stops.
Whereas a CHP officer may pull over dozens of drivers daily for violations like failing to signal, speeding or reckless driving, deputies often pull over vehicles in relation to a criminal investigation, which increases the chances for danger.
Paul, who also has served as a field training officer, said it is common to pull over a motorist if the vehicle matches a suspect vehicle’s description.
Paul said he was in a similar situation on a trip with his father through Los Angeles as a child and was pulled over and ordered out of the car because their minivan matched another used in a recent robbery.
“My dad was rattled and I was rattled, but in the end they thanked us for our cooperation,” Paul said. “But if you’re ever in that scenario, it’s definitely not personal.”
In those types of stops, Paul said it is common to order a motorist out of a vehicle and question them. Even in those instances, simply questioning or verbally disagreeing with an officer is not grounds for arrest.
“The line, if you will, is really drawn at the point where their body language starts to match their verbal language,” he said. “Assuming a fighting stance, having a clenched fist, cocking their arm — all those things are kind of telling you that somebody is continuing to get upset.”
To de-escalate, Paul said, he prefers to repeatedly reiterate why he stopped the person.
“In my experience, a lot of times that works,” Paul said. “Believe me, I’m not enjoying this any more than you are, probably.”
How to behave during a traffic stop
Even minor traffic stops can be nerve-wracking — for the driver and the officer. Here are tips to ensure yours goes smoothly.
- When a police vehicle’s lights flash behind you, yield as soon as is safe to the right side of the road (using your blinker).
SOURCES: American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, California Highway Patrol