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Open Diff: How DO you handle a traffic stop, anyway?

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Pulling out of the weekend show-and-shine, trophy in hand for favorite muscle car, you succumb to the encouragement of the crowd. “Light ’em up!” they shout, so you lay into the fun pedal, magically transforming your Comp T/A radials into white smoke. Then, it happens: The wail of a siren foreshadows the red and blue lights that appear — seemingly out of nowhere — in your rearview mirror.

Car show jackassery aside, we’ve all been there. Perhaps it was pushing our luck on the commute home, or enjoying a weekend drive in your favorite car with a bit too much enthusiasm (and subsequent disregard for local, state, or federal speed limits). Maybe it was a simple oversight — failure to signal a turn, or to notice that a headlamp or taillamp was out. A traffic stop is (almost) inevitable for the majority of us, so what’s the best strategy to avoid draining the bank account (and raising insurance rates) any more than necessary?

Now, the disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer, nor do I play one on television. I come from a family with ties to law enforcement, though I’ve never donned the uniform myself. Most of the advice you’re about to read comes from those who have worked in law enforcement, but that’s not to say one can always avoid a ticket. Sometimes, your number is up, and no matter what is said or done, a citation gets written. Also, this advice is for minor traffic infractions only — more serious offenses are a different subject altogether.

First, put yourself in the shoes of the law enforcement professional making the stop. When he or she gets out of their patrol car, you represent the great unknown. You could be a fellow officer, a generally law-abiding citizen, or a felon with active warrants. Anything you can do to minimize the tension and put the officer at ease will help to make the stop easier for both of you. If you’re driving a well maintained classic car, the situation may already be partially de-escalated, and it’s in your best interest to keep things going in this direction.

My course of action is this: I pull to the shoulder, giving the officer enough room to approach on the driver’s side. Since some prefer to approach from the passenger’s side (especially on busy highways), I lower both front windows, then turn the ignition off. At night, I turn on the dome light, then place both hands on the steering wheel – in plain sight – and wait for the officer’s approach.

“Do you know why I pulled you over?” is typically the next question. There are a few schools of thought on the best answer. You can try “I don’t know,” but chances are you have a good idea already. A lawyer will tell you “never admit to a crime,” but sometimes an honest “I should have been paying more attention to the speed limit,” will help you more than hurt you. Use your own discretion here.

Law enforcement professionals like recognition as much as any of us, so if you can recognize department and rank, first contact is a great place to demonstrate this. “Was I speeding, sergeant (or corporal, etc.)?” says that you’re acknowledging their rank (and the work it took to earn it), and may have worn a uniform yourself at one time. When in doubt, stick to “officer” for local and county departments, or “trooper” for state-level departments. Avoid the overly courteous (and disingenuous) “sir” or “ma’am” with every sentence, since this will have no bearing whatsoever on the outcome of the stop.

When asked for documents, advise the officer where they are. A good way to start the dialogue is “My license is in my wallet. I’ll get that first, then get the registration and insurance card out of the glovebox.” Avoid sudden movements, since they convey that you might be reaching for something other than the requested paperwork. Sometimes, Policeman’s Benevolent Association (PBA) cards help, but this is a VERY regional thing. If you have one, hand it over with your license, but understand it may do no good at all.

Regardless of the officer’s attitude, it’s important to not let emotion get the best of you. If he or she is regularly on patrol, chances are your stop is one of a dozen or so made that day. Give them a reason to forget about you by maintaining your composure; should things go to court, there’s no guarantee the officer will even show up on the appointed date and time to testify against you. On the other hand, if you argue during the stop and boldly proclaim “I’ll see you in court!,” then yes, you most certainly will.

Many times, your attitude and current driving record will determine whether or not you get a ticket (or tickets) or simply a warning. That said, there are no guarantees, so if the officer does write a citation, your time to argue the charges is in court, potentially with a lawyer by your side, and not at the side of the road. Take back your documents, sign for the ticket, then (calmly) be on your way.

If you are (or were) in law enforcement, we’d love to hear from you. What can you add to the above tips? What excuses have you heard (and did any get the driver in question out of a ticket)?