Police pull over nearly 50,000 drivers in the U.S. a day, according to Stanford University’s Open Policing Project. It’s important to know your rights and what to do. (Photo: Getty Images)
Thousands of Americans are pulled over in traffic stops each day, according to police data. Experts point to racial disparities and officers’ use of force, in Maricopa County and nationally, as reasons for reform.
In 2018, U.S. Department of Justice surveyed police agencies about contact with the public in the prior 12 months. The most common reason for a member of the public to come in contact with the police is a traffic stop.
Police pull over nearly 50,000 drivers in the U.S. a day, according to Stanford University’s Open Policing Project.
Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old, was shot and killed by police April 11 in Minnesota after being pulled over during a traffic stop. Police called the shooting “accidental” after an officer pulled out her gun instead of a taser. The officer resigned and is facing charges of second-degree manslaughter.
The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office released a report in May stating Hispanic and Black drivers are more likely to be held longer in traffic stops than white drivers.
Mariah Valenzuela filed a notice of claim against the city of Phoenix and the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office in July after a police officer injured her while throwing her to the ground during a traffic stop. The county attorney’s office charged her with resisting arrest. Prosecutors dropped the criminal charges against her a day after she filed the notice of claim.
Andres Dominguez is now suing Scottsdale and two former officers for a January 2020 traffic stop that led to him being hospitalized. He was pulled over for making a U-turn on Scottsdale Road. Video shows him being pulled to the ground.
A video provided by the Scottsdale Police Department shows Andres Dominguez of Tempe being pulled from his car during a Scottsdale police traffic stop in January 2020.
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The frequency of traffic stops leading to trauma, injuries, shootings and deaths have caused many people to find ways to protect themselves from officers.
People have turned to dashboard cameras and making iPhone shortcuts to inform their emergency contacts during traffic stops.
Table of Contents
Your rights during traffic stops
Police authority is very broad during a traffic stop.
Lawyers advise drivers and passengers to try to comply with officers to decrease tension as much as possible. Not doing so could lead the officers to say that noncompliance gave them additional evidence to take more action during the traffic stop.
- Drivers should slow down while attempting to pull over.
- Have windows down and hands on the wheel.
- During the night, turn on interior lights. Be in a well-lit area if possible.
- Try to avoid making any sudden movements.
- Don’t look for your identification or go through your car until the officer gives instructions.
People can invoke their rights to not speak to the police without the presence of an attorney.
Know what to do when a police officer pulls you over. Here are some recommendations for making the experience easier.
However, it is important for a person to clearly say that they want an attorney and don’t want to talk to police.
MORE: What you need to know about the Miranda warning
The American Civil Liberties Union says people don’t have to answer questions concerning where they were born, if they are a U.S. citizen or how they entered the country. According to the organization, there are different rules at international borders, airports and for people with certain nonimmigrant visas.
Ben McJunkin, the associate deputy director of Arizona State University’s Academy for Justice, said drivers can refuse to have their car searched if an officer asks for consent. However, if they have evidence that you have drugs or guns in the car they can search it without consent.
Some officers may ask for everyone’s identification to check for warrants. Drivers must show their identification in order to prove they are allowed to drive in Arizona.
Russ Richelsoph, a Tempe-based attorney, told The Republic in 2019 that passengers are not required to produce the information.
If the officer asks for identification and the passenger doesn’t want to provide it, they can say, “I’m not legally required to identify myself to you,” Richelsoph said.
According to state law, a person is giving consent to take blood, breath or urine tests to determine alcohol or drug content if they get behind the wheel. The Arizona Supreme Court issued two opinions in 2019 reminding drivers.
If a police officer suspects you of DUI, they will read your options. If you take the test immediately and are convicted, your license is suspended for at least 90 days.
If you don’t take the test, your license automatically will be suspended for 12 months. Your license can be suspended for two years if you already have refused consent within the past 84 months.
The officer can ask a judge to issue a warrant for a test and you may face a criminal DUI charge.
Problems surrounding traffic stops
McJunkin said police officers do not have to tell people why they are being pulled over.
“The Supreme Court has actually said that the reason why the police officer has pulled you over is irrelevant to the constitutionality of the stop,” McJunkin said.
The Department of Justice reported Black people had the highest percentage, at 4%, for experiencing threats or use of force by police. Black and Latino people had the highest percentage, both at 4%, for being handcuffed during their most recent encounter with police.
Wright was pulled over during what is called a “pretextual traffic stop.” Police said he was pulled over because of expired registration, and officers sought to arrest him when finding out he had a warrant.
Sometimes police will use a traffic offense as a way to stop a driver to investigate their suspicions about another crime for which they don’t have sufficient evidence at the moment.
If officers suspect a particular driver is involved in drugs, they would need reasonable suspicion that some sort of crime is going on or have probable cause the person has committed a crime. If they want to investigate, the officers may follow the driver until a traffic offense was committed.
A traffic offense could be a broken tail light, failing to look before changing lanes, going 2 mph over the speed limit or an air-freshener blocking the rearview mirror.
“One of the problems is that pretextual stops could often be racially motivated,” McJunkin said.
Some officers use race in their assessments to pull over certain drivers during traffic stops or to investigate potential drug crimes.
Sandra Bland, a Black woman in Texas, was pulled over for not signaling while changing lanes in July 2015. The state trooper ordered her from her car, forced her to the ground and arrested her. She died in jail.
In June 2015, a Black elementary school teacher was pulled from her car by an officer during a traffic stop and thrown to the ground, the Austin-American Statesman reported. A second officer was heard on video telling the woman police are sometimes wary of Black people because of their “violent tendencies.”
Barbara Armacost, a law professor at the University of Virginia, said traffic laws are very extensive and can overcriminalize.
“Once a person is stopped on the side of the road, police can seize any evidence that is in plain view inside of a car, they can ask for consent to search the car, and they pretty much always get it,” Armacost said.
If officers have reasonable suspicion, they could do a frisk inside the car. If they believe the person is armed and dangerous, the officers can order them out of the car and frisk the person.
According to Armacost, police can arrest drivers for a traffic offense because they violated a law. This allows officers to conduct a search and possibly impound the car.
According to McJunkin, the stop also allows officers to interfere with citizen liberties; officers are pursuing traffic infractions only to look for bigger crimes instead of using their resources elsewhere.
In 2016, a passenger was arrested after a police officer stopped a car going 11 mph over the speed limit near the Pascua Yaqui Indian reservation near Tucson. Police found open beer bottles near his seat and the passenger refused to give his identification.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in 2019 law enforcement couldn’t extend a traffic stop because a passenger refused to give his identification. An officer must have a reasonable suspicion the person committed a crime.
People with disabilities affected
The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders reported in 2016 that 20% of youth with autism had been stopped or questioned by the police by age 21.
Asim Dietrich, staff attorney for the Arizona Center for Disability Law, said many people with disabilities lack reasonable accommodations during traffic stops.
“Members of law enforcement always need to be mindful that someone might have a disability and might need additional accommodations,” Dietrich said.
The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits state and local programs from discriminating against someone with a disability, including law enforcement agencies. Police are required to have certain policies and procedures to be accommodating.
The Department of Justice advises that police officers should be trained to understand when a behavior is a risk and when it is not, and when a person is in crisis or needs medical help.
“It is also important that behaviors resulting from a disability not be criminalized where no crime has been committed,” the department noted in its online Q&A.
The Arizona Center for Disability Law has worked with Phoenix and Tucson police departments on various issues to make sure there is a dialogue between the community and agencies.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least five states allow for certain medical conditions or disorders to be noted on identification, license plates or vehicle registration to alert law enforcement and first responders.
Training and reform within agencies
Some criminal justice experts say the best place to start to make change is within law enforcement agencies.
Law enforcement agencies provide extensive training on traffic stops. However, some departments only explain the constitutional limits, which can make some officers believe they have unlimited amounts of power.
Some agencies teach officers to use best practices, like procedural justice, to help civilians understand everything that is going on during the traffic stop.
McJunkin said one reform that is receiving traction is the idea of not using armed police officers during traffic stops.
“Just because something is constitutionally allowed doesn’t mean its the best practice for police or for society,” the law professor said. “Our traffic laws are sufficiently complex that if a police officer were to follow someone for any length of time they’re almost invariably going to find any kind of infraction that could justify a stop.”
Armed officers come with the risk that a stop could escalate to violence, McJunkin said.
Another reform is calling for fewer traffic stops for minor infractions because of racial disparities and the many shootings that have resulted from them, according to Armacost.
A Black and Latino Army officer was pepper sprayed while two officers pointed their guns at him in Virginia in December during a traffic stop.
According to the police report, the driver was stopped for having tinted windows and no license plate. The vehicle was new and had temporary tags displayed in the passenger and rear windows, according to a lawsuit filed by the driver.
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