Throughout my law enforcement career I made thousands of traffic stops. Although the words “routine traffic stop” are commonly used in the media, I can say without hesitation that there is nothing routine about a traffic stop. Traffic stops are an extremely effective tool for law enforcement in a variety of situations, but also one of the most dangerous aspects of an officer’s job. Most of my traffic stops were never an issue, however during my career I was assaulted during a traffic stop, had to use physical force on several of them, and came the closest ever to using lethal force during a traffic stop.
Traffic stops fall into one of two categories: high-risk and unknown-risk, and each are approached differently. From an outside perspective traffic stops seem relatively simple; get behind the violator, turn on the emergency lights, and make contact with the driver. In reality, a tactically sound officer must make multiple split-second decisions before ever turning on the emergency lights.
Traffic stops are used by law enforcement for much more than catching speeders on the freeway. Some of the most common uses of traffic stops include:
* DUII enforcement
* Criminal investigations
* Traffic enforcement
* Interdiction stops
Depending on the size and composition of a law enforcement agency, they may or may not have a dedicated traffic division. Police officers assigned to a traffic division are usually on motorcycles or specialized police vehicles that may be marked or unmarked and equipped with moving and handheld radar systems, in-car video systems, and e-citation equipment. The mission of a traffic unit is to reduce traffic related injuries and deaths by the enforcement of traffic laws. Traffic officers usually do not get assigned traditional “cases” or investigations with the exception of traffic related crime reports including hit and run, vehicular assaults and deaths, and DUII. Some law enforcement agencies are almost completely traffic oriented, such as a highway patrol office where nearly all of their officers are assigned to traffic enforcement.
Police motorcycle, radar control head in center of console above
Traffic stops are not just limited to officers who are part of a traffic team though. Officers assigned to regular patrol use traffic stops to also enforce traffic laws as well finding DUII drivers, wanted individuals, or to show police presence in a particular area. Often, agencies may assign “saturation patrols” to an area that is having crime problems and one aspect of the patrol will be to stop everything moving in that area that can be lawfully stopped.
When I was a brand new officer, I thoroughly enjoyed traffic enforcement and would generally make between 20 and 30 traffic stops per shift and issue around 15 to 20 citations per day. Using radar/lidar and watching for people running red lights were some of my favorite things to do early in my career. My agency did have a dedicated traffic team, but on day shift there wasn’t much else to do and often traffic stops led to other, more exciting things (more on this later).
After working my first three months of day shift, I realized I preferred working the graveyard shift and spent the remainder of my patrol career working nights. I quickly learned that traffic stops at night were much more complex than the daytime and done for an entirely different reason. Daytime traffic enforcement lends itself well to catching speeders, people that aren’t wearing their seatbelt, and other traffic violations. It also gives the officer a good view into the vehicle to see the number of occupants and identify the driver. There were certain “regulars” that I knew had a suspended drivers license so when I saw them behind the wheel it was automatic probable cause (PC) to stop the vehicle. This was also true for seeing people that have warrants for their arrest.
Night traffic enforcement on the other hand was completely different. Sure, people still sped and ran red lights, but I didn’t spend my shift sitting and waiting for those to occur. The graveyard shift was home to a different clientele and one that demanded my full attention. At night an officer cannot see into the vehicle and it is difficult to see whether or not someone is wearing his or her seatbelt. Nighttime though brings equipment violations such as inoperable lighting that aren’t available during the day. As a young officer on graveyard, I played the numbers game. I would stop as many vehicles as I could in hopes that statistically I could find something bigger, something criminal. I was less interested in issuing citations and more interested in getting the truly bad people off the streets and traffic enforcement was a great excuse to chat with people and get a look inside their car. I can’t tell you the number of times I stopped a vehicle for an inoperable license plate light and ended up with a major arrest.
Night stop – notice the curtain of light used by the officer
As I began to get more seasoned and found out what to look for, the number of traffic stops I made reduced greatly as my arrests increased. I would generally make three or four traffic stops per hour, but almost every one would result in an arrest or criminal investigation. I also learned patience. When I would see an unoccupied stolen vehicle or vehicles in front of a bar near closing time, I would sit and wait for those vehicles to go mobile. As soon as they did I found PC to stop the vehicle and I got my arrest. This is where my traffic stop focus went from traffic enforcement to a criminal investigation.
An officer has the legal authority to stop a vehicle when he or she believes they have probable cause (PC) that a crime has happened, is happening, or is about to happen or has reasonable suspicion that the driver has committed a traffic violation. PC and reasonable suspicion are two important legal terms and mean two completely different things (which could be a blog post in itself). There are also exceptions to the fourth amendment of the U.S. Constitution when it comes to searching vehicles for evidence of a crime when that vehicle recently has been or current is mobile. All of these issues must be well known to law enforcement officers as traffic stops and evidence seized as the result of a traffic stop are hotly contested issues in court and result in many motions to suppress evidence and case law decisions.
Interdiction stops are another form of traffic stops used by police. During interdiction stops, police are trained to look for certain things that are known to be consistent with criminal activity (usually narcotics). This may be a vehicle registered to certain states, time of day for travel, vehicle make/model, driver characteristics, and more. When an officer finds a vehicle that matches what they are looking for, the officer attempts to find a legal reason to stop the vehicle and then conducts a traffic stop. The sole purpose of the stop is not to issue a traffic citation, but to get into the vehicle and search for evidence of the crime they are after.
Officers have the legal authority to search a vehicle under many circumstances. The easiest and most often used tactic to get into a vehicle is through consent. Amazingly, I rarely had people tell me “no” when I asked if I could search their person and their vehicle. An officer needs to have an articulable reason for asking to search. For example, when I stopped a vehicle and noticed the driver was exhibiting signs of recent methamphetamine use, I would ask them to perform Standardized Field Sobriety Tests (SFSTs). If the driver didn’t have enough physical impairment to arrest for DUII, but still exhibited signs of drug use, I would ask them permission to search their vehicle. Nine times out of ten I located their drug kit under the seat or somewhere in the vehicle filled with needles, spoons, lighters, pipes, and drugs. Had the driver been arrested for DUII, I would now have the legal right to search the vehicle based on the search incident to arrest rule. Officers can also apply for search warrants to search vehicles, or sometimes can just search them without a warrant or consent if they believe the vehicle was just mobile and contains evidence of a crime. The courts call this the “automobile exception rule” and the searches are allowed because vehicles by their very nature are less private than someone’s home and preserving evidence in a vehicle can be challenging.
Some of my classmates practicing field sobriety tests at the police academy – 2001
This blog hopefully gives you some background on how law enforcement uses traffic stops as a tool to find criminal activity and protect their communities. In my next blog segment, I will discuss the mechanics of a traffic stop and what is going through the police officer’s mind at the time.
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Josh has a long history of public service, beginning in 1993 as a Firefighter and EMT. After eight years of various assignments, Josh left the fire service with the rank of Lieutenant when he was hired as a police officer.
Josh spent the next eleven years in law enforcement working various assignments. Josh worked as a patrol officer, field training officer, arson investigator, detective, forensic computer examiner, sergeant, lieutenant, and task force commander.
The last seven years of Josh’s law enforcement career was spent as the commander of a regional, multi-jurisdictional, federal cyber crime task force. Josh oversaw cyber crime investigations and digital forensic examinations for over 50 local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. Under Josh’s leadership, the forensics lab was accredited by the American Society of Crime Lab Directors / Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB) in 2009.
Josh has been recognized as a national expert in the field of digital evidence and cyber crime and frequently speaks across the nation on various topics. He has testified as an expert witness in digital forensics and cyber crime in both state and federal court on several occasions. He also holds a variety of digital forensic and law enforcement certifications, has an associate’s degree and graduated summa cum laude with his bachelor’s degree.
In 2012 Josh left law enforcement to pursue a full-time career in cyber security, incident response, and forensics supporting a federal agency. Josh now leads the Monitor and Control Team of a Cyber Security Office and his team is responsible for daily cyber security operations such as; incident response, digital forensics, network monitoring, log review, network perimeter protection, and firewall management.