What to do if you’re stopped by a cop

For the life of me, I’ve never truly understood why some drivers say the things they do when stopped for traffic violations. Sometimes, it’s almost as if they’re trying to talk an officer into issuing them a ticket.

Believe it or not, a fair portion of whether you are “cited” depends on your attitude when stopped. Sometimes, your attitude can dictate the outcome of the stop. Plainly stated, if you act like a jerk to the officer, you’re going to get the ticket.

True, there are some officers who are so strict on traffic enforcement, they would write their own mother a ticket. Every department has a few. There are officers who will cite you no matter your demeanor. You violated the law; therefore, you receive a ticket. Case closed.

I remember one Washington State Patrol trooper who said, “When people ask me, ‘Where’s my warning?’ I tell them, ‘The speed limit sign was your warning.’”

Mechanical violations are known as “fix-it tickets,” while driver-initiated actions (speeding, failure to stop for red lights) are “moving violations.” If you have a broken brake light, it’s not the end of the world. The officer isn’t particularly interested in hearing any excuses for mechanical violations. A ticket for the deficient item ensures that you have now been notified of the violation and must fix it.

A moving violation is different, and it can cost you your driving privileges. With these violations, most officers want to hear your reasoning behind the violation before deciding if you deserve a citation.

There are usually two schools of thought. The first is that the driver should be cited no matter what, and the second is is that the driver is most likely going to be cited, but the police officer will want to hear what he says first. It depends on the officer, what training he or she has received and what works for them.

It’s no surprise that officers assigned to traffic enforcement are the strictest. Officers with the State Patrol are walking traffic code encyclopedias. Most city and county sheriff’s departments have their own traffic enforcement officers. With these officers, traffic enforcement is their main job, along with investigating related incidents.

When an officer activates his emergency lights, he is telling you to pull over, and pull over now — not when you’re through with your phone conversation, or when it’s convenient for you, but now. If they don’t like the area where you’re stopping, they’ll tell you by using their PA system.

Everyone, even off-duty police officers, panic when he or she first sees red and blue lights in the rear-view mirror at first. It’s a natural reaction.

Once you have stopped, turn your engine off. Hopefully you have your driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance at the ready. Have all three on hand and turn your car’s interior light on.

Police officers are fanatics about seeing a person’s hands in full sight, so help them out and place both hands on your steering wheel. By doing this, you will reassure the officer. Due to the hundreds of hours of traffic stop courses cops take, they can tell if you’re cooperative upon their initial approach. Whatever you do, do not get out of your car unless instructed to.

This is where your interpersonal skills come into play. Remember, you’ll never get a second chance to make a first impression. For the next 10 or so minutes, even though you’d most likely prefer not to get acquainted, the officer is on his or her fact-finding mission. Don’t jeopardize the entire traffic stop with a negative initial contact. You will lose if you do.

Generally, I receive some of the following greetings: “Is there a problem, officer?” and “How can I help you?” These are reasonable responses.

Some of the worst “greetings” I’ve received from drivers include: “You’d better have a good reason for stopping me” and “What’s your problem, pal?” I’ll let you guess if these drivers were cited.

After the officer receives your requested statistical information, he or she will most likely ask you if you know why you were being stopped. If you don’t know, say so.

Some traffic ticket “experts” recommend drivers say nothing about the violation. This means offering no rationale for your actions and simply signing the citation and taking it to court.

But if you do know why, I suggest you admit it and throw yourself on the mercy of the officer. We rarely hear violators confessing their mistakes, and admitting your indiscretion can sometimes be refreshing to hear. You may only receive a warning or a scolding.

Of course, depending upon the officer, you may receive a citation; however, you get more flies with honey than with vinegar. You may want to give the officer a piece of your mind, but think of the repercussions. If you argue with the officer over the violation, you’re not going to win. If you truly believe the ticket was issued in error, contest it in traffic court, and don’t argue with the officer on the side of the road.

Being pulled over by the police never happens when it’s convenient: It’s always the wrong time. If you show your discontent, or if you’re rude, insulting, demeaning or just a jackass, you have no one but yourself to blame.

Chances are if you were in the officer’s boots, you’d give yourself a ticket, too.

Dave Weiner is a U.W. Bothell/Cascadia Community College Security & Campus Safety Officer and retired police officer.

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