Last week, in this three-part preventive medicine series on safe and effective ways of dealing with police-citizen encounters, I discussed how to handle vehicle stops conducted by the police, specifically how to avoid such stops in the first place and how to respond when approached by a police car with lights and sirens on.
This week I discuss how best to conduct yourself during the remainder of such an encounter with law enforcement. This is something everyone needs to review personally and review with family members and children.
Right after you stop
• When interacting with anyone, courtesy is appreciated. This is not the time to be angry or argumentative. A dispute can be handled at a later date by you and/or your attorney if necessary, but the moment of being pulled over is not that time. At this point, courtesy is king.
• Turn the ignition off.
• Completely roll down your window.
• Remain in your car and place your hands on top of the steering wheel (10 and two o’clock position), in plain sight, and do not move them until given permission by the officer.
• If you are being pulled over in the dark, it is very important to immediately turn on your dome light as a courtesy so that the officer has a clear view into your car. Remember, a traffic stop can be threatening for both parties, so anything you can do to be cooperative and reduce any anxiety on the officer’s part will go a long way in helping you.
• When the officer approaches your car, you should say one thing and only one thing: “Hello, officer.”
• Wait for the officer to make the next comment, while maintaining eye contact.
• The officer may ask a question like, “Do you know why I pulled you over?” or “Do
you know how fast you were going?” Because you are not a mind reader, the only answer you can and should provide, in a polite manner, is, “I am not sure, officer.”
• You will be asked for your driver’s license, proof of insurance and registration. Tell the officer where they are located and ask the officer for permission to remove your hands from the steering wheel and retrieve them. Do not remove your hands until permission is given by the officer. This is a tense situation and you don’t want the officer to have any reason to believe that you are reaching for a weapon.
At this point, the officer may take the materials back into the squad car and check your documents.
• Remain calm and still with your hands on the steering wheel until the officer returns.
• If you are only given a warning, that is great. If you are given a ticket, and disagree, you may protest it at a later time, but not now.
• Whatever the officer gives you, accept it and say two things and two things only: “Thank you officer,” and “Will you please instruct me how to re-enter the road as I depart?”
(If the police stop is for suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol, there is one additional thing to consider. If you are found to be over the limit, the charge is a misdemeanor. If you refuse a breathalyzer test, in Minnesota the charge automatically escalates to a gross misdemeanor. Check now with your attorney to see how to act — whether to take the breathalyzer or not — if the situation should ever arise.)
As I said, if you do not agree with a citation or how the officer treated you, follow the instructions on the back of the ticket to protest. You may also wish to consult an attorney to help defend your rights. The main objective is that you survive the encounter without incident or injury.
Now the most important thing you can do is review this article with yourself, adult family members, and any children and their friends nearing or at driving age. Print it out and practice by doing a live car test (maybe just in your driveway). Run through a mock traffic stop and have them follow the list completely (even turning on the dome light) as you play the role of the officer. This 10-minute investment may pay you and your loved ones very rich rewards.
Next week: How to interact with the police when confronted on-foot or if the police knock on your door.
Charles E. Crutchfield III, MD is a board certified dermatologist and Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He also has a private practice in Eagan, MN. He has been selected as one of the top 10 dermatologists in the United States by Black Enterprise magazine and one of the top 21 African American physicians in the U.S. by the Atlanta Post. Dr. Crutchfield is an active member of the Minnesota Association of Black Physicians, MABP.org.