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What To Do If You Are Stopped By The Police

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There may come a time where you get stopped by the police while operating a motor vehicle (called a "traffic stop"). For many, this is a very frightening and traumatic experience--especially if they have never been stopped by the police before. Most individuals have their first or only contact with the police during a traffic stop. Although traffic stops are quite frequent, each one is different and has the potential for danger. Hopefully after reading this you will better understand what happens at a traffic stop and what you can do to minimize the dangers to both yourself and the officer(s) involved.

For starters, it is important to know that more police officers are killed each year while conducting traffic stops than during any other police function. This means that in a police officer's mind, a traffic stop is more deadly than a bank robbery, a domestic disturbance or even a bar fight. Because of this statistic, officers are trained to approach each vehicle with due care and caution.

There are two types of motor vehicle violations (often called infractions)–Highway Traffic act and Criminal Code infractions. Examples of Highway Traffic Act infractions are speeding, not wearing a seat belt, running a red light or stop sign. The penalty is usually a fixed dollar amount and because it is summary offence, the driver does not end up with a criminal record. In fact, unless the operator appeals the ticket, he or she doesn't even have to go to court. The more serious motor vehicle infractions are classified as criminal. Examples of criminal motor vehicle infractions are impaired driving, leaving the scene of an accident ( hit and run ). Operators caught breaking these laws either receive a summons to appear in court at a later date or are arrested. A conviction of a criminal motor vehicle infraction will result in a criminal record.

The most common reason for a traffic stop is Highway Traffic violation. What this means is the officer observed your vehicle breaking a minor traffic law (there are several hundred of them) and by law is required to give you a ticket. Usually, the officer will follow your vehicle and signal you to pull over by activating the emergency lights and/or siren of the police cruiser. The law requires that you pull your vehicle to the right and stop for any approaching emergency vehicle. The officer will stop a short distance away from your vehicle. If the traffic stop takes place at night, the officer may activate the cruiser's spotlights. This is done for officer safety, not to annoy or inconvenience you. At this stage of the traffic stop, it is very important that you do not get out of your vehicle. Remain inside unless the officer directs you to do otherwise. The officer may direct you to move your vehicle to a different location in order to conduct the traffic stop. This is done if the officer believes the current location is unsafe for either you, the officer, or the other passing motorists.

The officer may approach your vehicle slowly and although it is most common for the officer to come up to your driver window, he/she is not required to do so and may come up on the passenger side of your vehicle. Again, this is done for officer safety, not to annoy or inconvenience you. If the traffic stop is taking place at night, turn on your interior or dome light. By illuminating the interior of your vehicle, you show the officer how many people are in the car and what they are doing. Turn off your radio, as it will help you and the officer hear each other when speaking. It is also a good idea to leave both your hands on the steering wheel until the officer has spoken to you for the first time. Keeping your hands in view at all times shows the officer you have nothing to hide. Also, DO NOT try and hide anything under the front seats. Some people that have radar detectors think they will get in more trouble if the officer sees it and quickly try and shove it under the front seat. However, from the officer's point of view, you are making the exact same motions as someone who is trying to stuff a gun, knife or drugs under the seat. Remember, traffic stops are the most dangerous thing police officer does and while you were hiding your radar detector the officer is now calling for backup because your movements in the vehicle (called "furtive movements") have raised his suspicion as to what is going on in the vehicle. The officer is trained to expect and assume the worst. More often than not, the unknowing actions of the driver cause the officer's perceived threat level to escalate more seriously and rapidly than necessary. If you remember these five things:

Stay in your vehicle
Turn on your interior light
Keep your passengers still and quiet (if applicable)
Keep both hands on the steering wheel until the officer tells you otherwise
Don't make any sudden movements in the car, especially under the front seats, in the center console or in the glove compartment
Your traffic stop experience should be much more relaxed and friendly.

The officer will most likely ask you for your license and registration and insurance proof. By law you are required to carry all of these documents your person or in some easily accessible place in your vehicle at all times while driving. You MUST give the officer these documents for inspection if requested. Simply showing him the documents does not satisfy the law. He/she is allowed to take your license and registration, inspect them, and record any information from them that is necessary to properly complete the ticket. Failure to produce these documents is an offence. The officer is also not required to tell you why he/she is stopping you before you produce your license and/or registration. Until the officer knows who you are and has your documentation in hand, he/she is not required to reveal anything about why you are being stopped. However, once the officer has your license and registration in hand and has deemed the situation under control, the officer MUST tell you the reason for the traffic stop.

The officer may ask you a few questions about the offense or about your vehicle in general. Answer all of the officers questions. If you have questions, don't be afraid to ask but only after you have answered all of the officer's questions. Remember, the officer does not decide if you are innocent or guilty of a motor vehicle violation. The officer observed the violation and is issuing you a ticket for it. Arguing with the officer will not change his/her mind. The officer may return to his/her cruiser for a short time. Usually this is to contact the dispatcher and check your license and vehicle information to make sure both are valid and that you are not missing or wanted by another police agency. Sometimes the computer that is used to check this information is slow and the officer may be in the cruiser for what seems like a long period of time. Remember the rule above and do not get out of your vehicle. The officer wants to finish the traffic stop as quickly as you do and will get back to you as fast as possible. Any interruptions from you just delays the traffic stop that much longer.

When the officer returns to your vehicle, he/she will give back your license and registration and then will give you your copy of the ticket, if one is issued. The officer does not write the laws, establish speed limits, create the rules or set the fines--he/she simply enforces the laws. If you disagree with the speed limit on a certain road, or if you don't think you committed the offense of which the officer is accusing you, there is a way to contest the ticket. However, arguing with the officer at the side of the road is not the way to contest a ticket. Besides, the longer an officer stands alongside your vehicle in the roadway, the more dangerous the traffic stop becomes to him/her.

After the officer has given you all the necessary paperwork, he/she will return to the cruiser and the traffic stop will be over. DO NOT try and read the ticket or the back of it while parked at the side of the road. Sitting at the side of the road is always dangerous and if the officer leaves before you do, you create a potential traffic hazard. The ticket can be confusing if you've never seen one before so take the time when you get home to read it thoroughly. There's nothing on the ticket you need to know immediately anyway.

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COMMON MYTHS ABOUT TRAFFIC STOPS

MYTH #1: I wasn't doing anything wrong so the officer has no right to stop me.
FACT #1: Wrong. While it is true that an officer needs what is legally called "probable cause" to stop your vehicle for a motor vehicle infraction, often times you may not be aware that you are violating the law. There are several hundred traffic laws and some of the laws are very obscure but nonetheless valid. You may have a tail light not working or a dirty license plate. In this case your driving is okay but your vehicle is in violation and that is a valid reason to stop a vehicle. Also, many times after serious crimes occur, police departments will put out descriptions of vehicles involved over the police radio. You may not be doing anything wrong but if your car matches the description of a car just used in a criminal offence, you can be stopped to see if you were involved in the crime.

MYTH #2: The officer said he used radar to catch me speeding. I have the right to view the radar reading.
FACT #2: Wrong. Although an officer may use a radar  to verify a speed measurement, he/she does not have to show you the readout on the display. Traffic stops are inherently dangerous and having you exit your vehicle to go to the police cruiser and view the reading would be even more dangerous. Besides, most officers are trained not to "lock in" a radar reading so there would be nothing on the display to see anyway.

MYTH #3: I don't have my license with me while driving. I have 24 hours to bring it to the police station to show the officer.
FACT #3: Wrong. This is an old  tale.  You must carry your license and registration on you at all times or have it an easily accessible place in your vehicle. Failure to produce your licence is an infraction under the Highway traffic act.

MYTH #4: I'm a passenger in a car that was stopped by the police. I don't have to give the officer my name or any other information.
FACT #4: Wrong. Although the courts have ruled in the past that passengers in motor vehicles have a greater "expectation of privacy" than the operator, there are some instances where passengers are required by law to give their pertinent information to a police officer who asks. The Highway traffic act has a seat belt section that applies to both operators and passengers. Both operators and passengers over sixteen can be issued tickets for not wearing a seat belt. If you are a passenger over sixteen and not wearing a seat belt you have to give the officer the necessary information to complete the ticket.

MYTH #5: An unmarked cruiser is trying to pull me over. Because I can't verify it is a real police officer I don't have to stop.
FACT #5: Wrong. Many police agencies use unmarked vehicles to patrol roads and conduct traffic stops. If a vehicle is trying to pull you over and it is displaying flashing or rotating blue lights then you are required by law to stop for it. If you are unsure about the legitimacy of the police officer approaching your vehicle, lock all your doors. Roll down the driver's window just enough to carry on a conversation through the window and pass your license and registration to the officer. The officer is required by law to identify himself/herself as a police officer and have his/her badge displayed in a prominent location. Most police officers carry an official picture identification card issued by their department that you may ask to see, to verify his/her identity. If the officer is not in uniform or if you are in a very isolated or rural area, ask the officer to send another, marked cruiser with a uniformed officer to your location. Or ask the officer to follow you to the nearest police station or well-lit area. Once you have established that he/she is a police officer, you must comply with all lawful requests.

MYTH #6: The only reason the police officer gave me a ticket is because he/she has a quota to meet.
FACT #6: Wrong. While it is not unheard of, most police departments today do not give their officers a quota, or a required number of tickets to write in a set period of time. Officers are simply directed to write tickets whenever a traffic violation occurs. Sometimes an officer will go a whole shift without writing a single ticket. Other times an officer may write several dozen. It usually comes down to the officer being in the right place at the right time to observe the violation and issue a ticket.

MYTH #7: I'm over 19 years of age and I was in the back seat of a motor vehicle drinking a beer. The police have no reason to stop the vehicle in which I'm riding.
FACT #7: Wrong. As par the Liquor Control act, it is illegal for anyone (including those over the age of 19 and those riding as passengers) to possess an open alcoholic beverage container in a motor vehicle. If the police observe the driver or any passenger of a motor vehicle possessing or drinking from an open container of alcohol, they may stop the vehicle and issue ticket(s) to the offending occupant(s). Remember the driver is always responsible for what is going on in the vehicle.

 

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RCMP/GRC 2002