Traffic Stops: What to Do

A traffic stop is one of the most frequent encounters between motorists and police. Usually, police officers will pull a vehicle over if they have reason to believe some offense has occurred. As a driver, you may feel anxious, irritated at the delay or concerned about a possible citation. However, officers are also concerned about possible threats to their personal safety while performing their duties. 

There are many different reasons why you might be stopped by one of our deputies.

  • You may have committed a traffic violation.
  • You may fit the description of a suspect of a recent incident.
  • The deputy may think you are in trouble, need help, or are otherwise at risk.
  • You may have witnessed a crime.

Whatever the reason, the deputy needs your cooperation.

If you are stopped by a deputy while driving, you may feel confused, anxious, or even angry. These are natural feelings, but remember, traffic stops are also stressful and dangerous for our deputies. Just last year seven law officers were killed and many more seriously injured while making routine traffic stops. Traffic stops are especially dangerous during the hours of darkness. This understandable concern for motorist and law officer safety provides the basis for standard police procedures.

So what should you do when pulled over?

First, understand there is a correct way to pull over during a traffic stop. Don’t slam on your brakes when you see the flashing lights. You should immediately slow your vehicle down and put your turn signal on. Pull off the road completely to a shoulder or side street as quickly as possible. The goal is to park your car so it’s out of the way of traffic. If it is not a safe place to stop, drive slowly to a safer place. Stay in your car with your seatbelt fastened and turn off the radio. If you have any passengers in your vehicle, request that they remain silent at all times with their hands in plain sight.

Put the deputy or police officer at ease. Turn off your ignition, stay in the car and keep your hands on the steering wheel. At night, turn on the interior (“dome”) light. Keep your license, registration and proof of insurance close by, and be prepared to present them to the deputy upon request. Be courteous, stay calm, and don't complain. Keep your hands empty and in plain sight (such as on the steering wheel) so that the deputy can see them at all times, Never touch a deputy or resist them in the legal performance of their duties.

If you feel you have been mistreated, speak with a supervisor or air your grievance in court once the stop is over. The deputy does not have to initially inform you the reason for the stop prior to requiring that you provide the necessary documents such as your license, registration, insurance, etc. The deputy may order you, as well as any passengers, from the vehicle at any time during the lawful stop; you have no right to see a supervisor or anyone else prior to complying with the lawful requests of the deputy.

Remember, when stopped by a law officer:

  • A deputy may pull you over at any time for a traffic offense or criminal investigation.
  • When you see the emergency lights and/or hear the siren, remain calm and safely pull over parallel to the right side of the road.
  • Stay in your vehicle unless the deputy asks you to get out.
  • Keep your hands on the steering wheel so the deputy can see them.
  • Avoid any sudden movements, especially toward the floorboard, rear seat, or passenger side of the vehicle.
  • Wait for the deputy to ask you for your license or other documents before you reach for them. Georgia law requires drivers to show their drivers license, registration, and proof of insurance upon request.
  • If your documents are out of reach, tell the deputy where they are before you reach for them.
  • If the stop occurs during darkness, put on your dome or interior lights so the deputy can easily see that all is in order.
  • You, as the operator, are solely responsible for your vehicle and its occupants. If there are passengers in your vehicle, encourage them to remain quiet and cooperate with the deputy's instructions.
  • Be honest with the deputy. If you really didn't see the stop sign or were unaware of the speed limit, let the deputy know.
  • Additional deputies may respond to traffic stops to ensure that all is well. It would be normal to see two or three marked units on a routine traffic stop.
  • If you are issued a citation, accepting it or signing it is not an admission of guilt. If you feel the instructions or the reasons for the stop are vague or unclear, ask the deputy for details.
  • Avoid becoming argumentative. Arguing will not change the deputy's mind. You will have the opportunity to contest the citation in court.
  • The enforcement of traffic laws helps keep everyone safe.

Each situation is unique and law officers must alter their response to fit the circumstance. Generally, law officers:

  • Will provide their name upon request.
  • If not in uniform, will present proper identification; you may request to examine their credentials to verify they are a police officer.
  • In unmarked vehicles, will display emergency lights. They will understand if you slowly drive to a well-lit or populated area before stopping your vehicle.
  • Will inform a person of the reason for being stopped.
  • Will only arrest a person when they have probable cause to believe the person has committed a crime.
  • May search the body of a person to prevent injury to themselves or another person, or to prevent the disposal or destruction of evidence.

Frequent Questions and Laws

May a deputy order me and any occupants from my vehicle at a traffic stop without any additional reason?

Yes. The Supreme Court of the United States “recognized the inordinate risk confronting an officer as he approaches a person seated in an automobile” during a routine traffic stop in the case of Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106 (1977). That case cited a study (Bristow, “Police officer Shootings--A Tactical Evaluation,” 54 J. Crim. L.C. & P.S. 93 (1963)) which concluded that approximately thirty percent (30%) of police shootings occurred when a police officer approached a suspect seated in an automobile. Therefore, the Court concluded that an deputy may order someone stopped for a traffic violation to exit the vehicle. This is true regardless of whether the weather is unpleasant or that the deputy does not have a clear reason for asking you to get out. When the deputy asks you to “please step out of your car,” you have to do it.

May a deputy order me to lower my car windows?

Yes. If a deputy can order you from your vehicle for deputy safety without violating your rights, then the simple request of rolling down your windows is also reasonable and far less intrusive. Again, the risk facing the deputy is a major factor in this decision. However, if you are unable to roll your windows down for some reason (i.e., they are broken or malfunctioning), simply explain this to the deputy and be prepared to comply with his legal request for you to exit the vehicle should he or she ask.

May I be pulled over for attempting to avoid a road check?

Yes. The Georgia Court of Appeals recently reaffirmed its long-standing rule that “abnormal or unusual actions taken to avoid a roadblock may give an officer a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity even when the evasive action is not illegal.” Blakely v. State, 316 Ga. App. 213, 216 (2012). Therefore, under Georgia law, a driver who takes evasive measures to avoid a roadblock provides law enforcement officers with reasonable articulable suspicion to believe that they are engaged in criminal activity.

Am I required to show my driver’s license at a safety checkpoint?

Yes. Georgia law requires every licensed driver to “display his license upon the demand of a law enforcement officer.” O.C.G.A. § 40-5-29(b). Failure to do so permits officers to presume that: 1) you do not have a license on your person as required by O.C.G.A. § 40-5-29(a); and 2) you are driving without being licensed in violation of O.C.G.A. § 40-5-20. Furthermore, repeated refusals to comply with an officer’s request for your license can rise to the level of criminal obstruction of the officer in the performance of his duties pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 16-10-24(a), for which you can be lawfully arrested. In addition to your drivers’ license, officers may also lawfully require you to display proof of insurance pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 40-6-10. Failure to comply with these requests can lead to arrest, prosecution, and conviction (see Johnson v. State, 234 Ga. App. 218 (1998)). However, once you have complied with these requirements, you are not legally required to say anything more.  

Are passengers required to identify themselves to law officers upon request?

In State v. Williams, 264 Ga. App. 199 (2003), the Georgia Court of Appeals clarified that passengers in a stopped vehicle who are detained by the stop, but are not suspected of any violation or other criminal activity, may be asked for identification by an officer; however, the officer may not convey any message that a response is required. See also Holt v. State, 227 Ga. App. 46 (1997) and Edgell v. State, 253 Ga. App. 775, 777-778 (2002). Although an officer may not take the passenger's mere refusal to answer as providing reasonable suspicion of other criminal activity (see Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 at 34 (1968) (White, J., concurring)), the refusal may lead the officer to take additional safety precautions and / or to conclude that the passenger is in violation of O.C.G.A. § 16-11-36(a). Once an officer develops reasonable articulable suspicion to believe that a passenger is engaged in criminal activity, they may detain him or her and request identification.
What happens if I don’t agree with the lawful requests of deputies, such as showing my license or stepping out of my vehicle, etc.?

A person is guilty of obstructing a law enforcement officer pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 16-10-24(a) if the person willfully hinders, delays, or obstructs any law enforcement officer in the discharge of his or her official duties. Thus, continued refusal to obey lawful commands from an officer may result in your arrest for misdemeanor obstruction. In the event that your disobedience escalates to the point where you either threaten or perform a violent act upon the officer, the violation becomes a felony punishable by one to five years in prison. O.C.G.A. § 16-10-24(b).