Topic of the month: What to expect if you get pulled over

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Our city is recognized through out the metro Atlanta area for the professionalism and dedication of our officers.

Topic of the month: What to expect if you get pulled over What to expect if you get pulled over

Our officers every day accomplish multiple duties on any given day. They respond to domestic disputes, armed robberies, traffic accidents, and in between all of this, they may conduct traffic stops. Since it is likely that most of the driving population has been pulled over at one point in their lives, perhaps I should have covered this topic long ago – because it is important. Many times, folks have no idea why they are getting stopped by an officer; other times, they know good and well they broke the law and the blue lights in their rear view mirror are no surprise. For those of us law abiding citizens, here is a little insight as to what goes on in the mind of an officer when he or she conducts a traffic stop of your vehicle.

First and foremost, an officer MUST have a reason to pull you over. I cannot tell you how many times I hear someone who believes we can pull people over on a whim. We can’t. Either we believe a bona fide traffic violation has occurred, i.e. a headlight out, you ran a stop sign, or maybe you made an improper lane change, OR we have reasonable suspicion to make the pullover. I’m sure many of you are asking, what is “reasonable suspicion?” This means that the officer has an articulable reason - one based in common sense and logic - to believe that potential crime is afoot. Yes, this is broad, but it has to be. Think about it; if it’s three o’clock in the morning and an officer sees a carload of guys driving from the rear of Northwood’s shopping center, that should strike the officer as suspicious, because it is. He can legally make the stop because the facts and circumstances taken together are cause for concern. If, during the investigation, his suspicions are dispelled, then the officer will send the guys on their way. The officer is simply investigating what any reasonable person would deem as potentially suspicious. And I’m sure the person who owns that business would appreciate the stop (although they will probably never know it took place).

Have you ever been pulled over and the officer tells you he noticed the violation at a location that seems far back? You may wonder why it took the officer so long to pull you over. The answer is the officer may have wanted to make sure he had a solid reason for conducting the traffic stop. For example, perhaps an officer saw you cross over the double yellow line. That in itself is a violation of law and a valid reason for a traffic stop. However, the officer may follow you further to see if this (or other) violations are present, just to be extra certain. An entirely different reason for the delay in activating the blue lights may be that the officer was waiting until you approached a safe location to conduct the stop. Determining proper placement for the stop is for your safety as well as the officer’s.

On a similar note, have you ever been pulled over and it seemed like it took a long time for the officer to exit his cruiser and talk to you? In this case, the officer may be conducting a computer check on your tag and waiting for the returning information from the database. Officers want to know who they are encountering and a computer check is standard procedure during a vehicle pullover.

If you’ve ever been stopped at night by an officer, you may have wondered if it was necessary for the officer to shine his spotlight in your rearview mirror. This is a safety tactic for the officer. Traffic stops at night can be even more dangerous than during the day. The spotlight is used to limit your ability to see the officer’s approach.

Here’s one that I know will resonate with many of you -- Why didn’t the officer listen to all I had to say? Traffic stops are meant to be brief. An officer standing on the side of the road is in a naturally vulnerable position. Plus, the officer doesn’t want to take up any more of your time than necessary. Details about how your car didn’t pass emissions because of the shoddy work done by some lousy mechanic should not be discussed during the stop.

You may have noticed a pattern in the previous examples; they all revolve around gathering information, conducting an investigation, and, most importantly, officer safety. Officers have a duty to investigate potential crime, and information gathering helps them reach sound conclusions. Of course, these efforts must be conducted while remaining cognizant of their safety, as well as the safety of our citizens.

I’m certain some of you reading this piece will have a personal tale of when you were pulled over and not treated the way you believed you should have been. Although I consider Doraville officers top-notch professionals, I will be the first to admit there are some officers who could use a dose of, shall we say, “personality.” Still, the best way to respond is to try to put yourself in his position, be calm and answer the questions in a calm and deferential tone if possible.

To be perfectly serious, there’s a reason why officers are so cautious when conducting traffic stops. We have no idea if the person(s) inside the vehicle we’re stopping are law abiding or if they’ve just committed an armed robbery. Not knowing who we are dealing with creates a baseline of safety awareness for us. In other words, we are on a high alert level until we have reason to move to a lower level. The statistics back up our cause for concern -- in 2012, of all the firearm deaths of officers, traffic stops/pursuits ranked as the #2 cause of firearm deaths for us (according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund). That’s serious business. None of us wants to die in the line of duty; traffic stop or otherwise.

Fortunately, inside the vehicles on most our stops we find normal citizens who either are not paying full attention to their driving or the ordinarily law abiding citizen who makes an impulsive, poor decision (like the choice to run a red light). Just as they do in other incidents, officers have discretion in how they will handle their traffic stops. They can give a verbal warning, a written warning, issue a citation and, in certain circumstances, even make an arrest.

These are tips on what NOT do to when pulled over by an officer:

- Don’t exit your vehicle unless instructed to do so by the officer

- Don’t make ANY quick movements with your hands

- Don’t interrupt the officer when he or she is trying to tell you why you were stopped

- Don’t talk on the cell phone when the officer is trying to talk to you (that’s just rude)

Things to DO when the subject of a traffic pullover:

- When you see the blue lights, pull to a safe location on the right and avoid blocking traffic

- Let the officer know if your driver’s license is in a location other than your pocket/wallet

- Answer a direct question with a direct answer

- Assume your conversation with the officer is being recorded

- Most of all, BE HONEST. Lying will only make the situation worse

Well, that was a quick insight into one facet of the varied job we do. So, the next time you get pulled over keep these pointers in mind and maybe, just maybe, you’ll leave the stop without having signed on the dotted line.