By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
There are two main schools of thought when it comes to dealing with a cop during a traffic stop (or “safety” checkpoint). One of them is disgustingly obsequious, unworthy of a free people. The other is absolutely correct — in principle — but elements of it, if followed to the letter, can and probably will lead to unnecessary trouble.
The first school says Yes Sir and No Sir the cop, accede to his every request; be “cooperative” (that is, surrender all your rights) and Do As You Are Told. The problem with this approach is you’re counting on the cop to be decent, which he may not be. And if he’s not — if he’s a bully with a badge (and yes, they exist) then your supine submission may actually egg him on. There are times when it’s critical to stand your ground. I don’t mean be aggressive. I do mean don’t be passive. If you make it clear that people — cops or otherwise — can walk all over you – well, usually they will do just that.
Ok, so what’s the sensible middle ground? The practical, real-world smart way to handle a traffic stop?
First, make sure you never — ever — leave your driveway without your vehicle in legally faultless condition. All lights working, stickers up to date, etc. If you don’t give them a reason to pull you, you’ve won before it’s begun.
Second, never leave your driveway without your license and whatever other paperwork the Clovers (government) have decreed we must always possess.
I don’t like it any more than you. But you’re a noggin in search of a wood shampoo if you get stopped by a cop and assert “Sovereign Citizen” doctrine or some such.
I’m with you in principle. We should not have to carry “papers” in a free country and all the rest of it. But you will get exactly nowhere arguing this point with a cop. No, wait. That’s not quite true. You will get taken somewhere. To jail. This is to be avoided, if at all possible — unless you are that ardent about making a point, at least. Which if you are — bully. But most of us would prefer to just get away and go home for now.
Next, if Johnny Law appears on your bumper with his wig-wags flashing immediately slow, put on your turn signal and pull off the road — and as far off the road — as you reasonably can. Whether the stop is righteous or vicious, doesn’t matter. He’s got the gun, the badge and the Authoritay. By pulling off as far as you can onto the shoulder, you’ll be showing consideration for “officer safety,” which may soften the cop’s attitude.
For the same reason, turn on the dome light if it’s night, shut off the engine regardless — and put both hands on top of the steering wheel. Wait quietly.
Save the argument for later. Crack your window just enough to slip your license and registration paperwork through. Keep the door locked. Be civil — but not submissive. Don’t let yourself be baited by the cop into any discussion that will lead to an admission of guilt — or admission of anything, for that matter. If he asks you questions, just shrug or, if you prefer, respond with a neutral, noncommittal statement.
It is your right — but probably not wise — to quote the Bill of Rights. Probably it will just aggravate the cop — and while I don’t give a damn about his feelings, I do understand that I am at his mercy in a situation like this. You should understand it, too.
If it comes down to it, you should absolutely decline permission to search either your person or your vehicle. Say it loudly enough so that it will be picked up by the visual/auditory recording equipment almost all cops now have.
Make a recording. They are recording you — and whatever they record will be used against you. Make sure you can tell your side of things later on with the same incontrovertible “there it is, right on the tape” verisimilitude. But, don’t make a big deal of it. In fact, try your best to make the recording without the cop knowing. It could mean all the difference if the cop is a bad apple — one of the alarmingly common control freak types, possibly hopped up on steroids and looking for a punching bag, that can be found all over YouTube and other citizen protest venues of late. Save the evidence for later, when you will be at a much reduced risk of street justice — and at the ugly mercy of a cop’s word vs. yours.
And don’t sweat the legality of recording a public official performing his public duties. While a few proto-Stalinist enclaves such as Illinois and Maryland have arrested citizens for recording cops, these cases have uniformly been tossed by the courts.
The bottom line goal is to get done with the stop and be on your way again as quickly as possible. To be as forgettable and anonymous as you can be. To avoid escalation. To improve your chances of beating the wrap later on in court — or by gaming the bureaucracy.
Always remember that as much as it sucks — as much as we value our natural rights as free men — when the deck is stacked against you, discretion can be the smarter part of valor.