For this installment of our Ask a Vermont Officer series, we’re going back to the basics.
It may have been some time since you took driver’s education, and some details have slipped your mind. Or maybe you remember everything as it was taught, but law enforcement now has different preferences and expectations of drivers when a motor vehicle stop is conducted.
So we asked Special Operations and Traffic Safety Sgt. Jay Riggen of the Vermont State Police (VSP):
What am I supposed to do if I get pulled over?
First: immediately pull to the side of the road and put the vehicle in park. Then await the officer to approach and make contact with you. You do not need to turn the car off or even activate your turn or hazard signals.
In a previous segment in our series, we discussed the possibility of a driver contacting 911 if they have serious doubts that it’s a real police officer trying to pull them over. If the driver thinks it is in fact law enforcement though, they should not continue driving as police are specifically trained to identify where on a roadway is the safest place to conduct a stop.
But what if it’s a busy road and I think it’s safer to pull into a side street or parking lot?
Riggen said not stopping right away deviates from the norm and can lead to an officer questioning why that’s happening.
“The officer is wondering: is this person trying to conceal drugs? Are they trying to get a weapon ready? Did they just come from a robbery or a felonious assault?” said Riggen. “So all of these things are running through the officer’s mind. The operator knows what's in the operator’s heart, but the police officer doesn't. When things don't go normally, tension starts to rise, and we don't want tensions to rise on car stops for anybody.”
After making initial contact with the operator, the officer might decide and instruct the driver to relocate to a side street or commercial parking lot, but members of the public should not try to make that decision on their own beforehand.
Do I have to answer questions asked of me?
Riggen said the operator of a vehicle does not legally have to answer questions asked by an officer. All that is required of the driver is the presentation identification, registration, and insurance.
However, he added, “Again, officers are hypersensitive to departures from the norm. And it is not normal for a driver to refuse to answer questions of the officer. So that does start to get the officer’s stress level elevated, because it's abnormal.”
Should I have my documents ready when the officer approaches the vehicle to make contact?
According to Riggen, officers need to see three things during a traffic stop in Vermont: a driver’s license to ensure the person is legally permitted to operate that type of vehicle, registration to prove the vehicle can legally be on the road, and car insurance to show that the vehicle is legally covered in the case of crashes or damages.
Riggen said about half of the stops he’s been involved with see the driver try to gather those three documents before the officer approaches the window and makes contact. But he said police prefer that drivers don’t do that.
“I understand that's probably what they're doing, but it always does give me a pause to say: They're probably looking for their documentation, but are they actually doing something more nefarious?” said Riggen. “So that thought always crosses my mind. To that end, the best practice is to let the officer direct the person to grab things.”
Before moving to get documents, drivers should tell officers if there are any guns, knives or other weapons in the vehicle – even if they are being carried legally and aren’t somewhere that documentation is being stored, such as the glove box or center console.
Can I ask why I’m being pulled over and argue the reasoning for the stop?
Drivers can ask questions to the officer and should expect, and are deserving, of the officer’s respect, courtesy, and answering of fair questions that are asked.
“Again, what is in the operator's heart?” said Riggen. “Are they asking the question because they really don't know, because they've never been stopped before, they don't know why they were stopped, they have other fair and honest questions because they're actually looking for the answer – that's appropriate. But also, police tend to recognize the difference between being asked fair questions and simply just getting our chops busted. And that's not the time to be busting the chops of an officer.”
Riggen said if a driver feels like they were wrongly pulled over, the formal process of appeal should be followed instead of arguing with law enforcement about it during the stop. Information on how to do that will be on the ticket issued.
However, Riggen said if a driver feels like they were treated unfairly or rudely, or were pulled over for discriminatory reasons, they should address it – just with the officer’s superiors and at a later time.
“The more the stop is prolonged, the more likely it is – just from exposure – that there’s going to be a crash,” he said. “And so, for the sake of the operator and for the officer and for the property of others and so forth, we have to move through this thing as quickly, efficiently, legally as possible and then get back to business. So if there's any remediation needs to happen, it has to be afterwards.”
Riggen said people should instead contact the agency the officer works for and ask to speak with their supervisor about the situation. While he couldn’t speak for every agency in the state, he said VSP will always allow for members of the public to then review the recording of the encounter with the supervisor. He said by doing so can help people who might have misremembered the stop because of stress or other emotions experienced at the time, and it can also help the law enforcement agency learn if in fact their officers are behaving in an inappropriate manner.
“Officers who act unprofessionally need to be held accountable, but meanwhile, officers who act professionally don't deserve to be mislabeled, either,” said Riggen. “If they're not held accountable, then things start to escalate and next thing you know, we have rogue police officers – who are the gross minority of police officers, but they're allowed to exist because the public never spoke up.”
Can I record the traffic stop?
Riggen said people have the right in Vermont to record audio or video of motor vehicle stops and that officers shouldn’t have an issue with it since most agencies, including VSP, are recording themselves through either dashboard or body-worn cameras anyway. He noted that there’s no reason to be sneaky about it and that drivers can just state that they are going to record while during the interaction.
What about wearing masks?
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Riggen said it is the driver’s decision as to if they want to wear a mask or not. He noted that if the operator does want to have a mask on, the officer may ask that it be momentarily pulled down for positive identification.