WHEELING - Motorists who encounter the dreaded blue flashing lights in their rear-view mirror should be prepared to cooperate with the officer, but also be aware of their rights.
Police officers and criminal defense attorneys both urge drivers to be polite; but they may have different viewpoints on other aspects of the stop.
Wheeling Deputy Police Chief Martin Kimball said it is human nature for a person's mind to be flooded with negative thoughts at first sight of the flashing lights, but it is important to remain calm.
Photo by Scott McCloskey
Wheeling Police Cpl. Josh Sanders approaches a vehicle during a traffic stop. Motorists who see this image in their rearview mirrors should be prepared to cooperate with police.
"The basics are pull over into a safe area as soon as possible, stay in your car, keep your hands visible and comply with the officer's requests," he said. "If you don't do that, things can deteriorate very quickly."
He said safety of the officer and motorists is the primary objective during a traffic pullover. Pulling as far off the road as possible may decrease the possibility of the motorist or officer being struck by passing traffic.
"The officer must be in control of the situation at all times," Kimball said. "If he sees a motorist exit his vehicle and move toward him, it could be perceived as act an of aggression. It is easier for a person to pull a weapon, assault the officer or flee from the scene if he is out of the car."
Wheeling criminal defense lawyer Justin Hershberger said it is not against the law to get out of the vehicle but the driver should get back in if told to do so by the officer.
"It is important to do what he says, or you run the risk of facing an obstruction charge," Hershberger said.
Kimble said motorists should not fumble through their pockets, glove compartment or other out-of-sight areas of the vehicle while the officers is approaching.
"The driver should be prepared to obey the officer's commands and answer any questions he may ask," he said. "He will be asking for a driver's license, car registration and proof of insurance. It's a good idea for motorists to know where these documents are located in the vehicle so they do not have to fumble through things and present the threat of going for a weapon."
Kimball said the driver should not become argumentative with the officer or behave in a confrontational manner.
"Some people make a conscious decision to assault a traffic officer," he said. "Our No. 1 rule is that we plan to go home safely at the end of the day. When things turn confrontational, the officer must raise his level of force continuum to be higher than that of the offender."
He said the level of force used by an officer is dictated by the situation. Police officers use the force continuum, a scale of force alternatives, to mediate the level of response used in a given situation.
"The force continuum is broken down into six broad levels, he said. "Each level is designed to be flexible as the need for force changes as the situation develops. It is common for the level of force to go from level two, to level three and back again in a matter of seconds. The level of force can be anything from a simple command to deadly force."
Kimball also said motorists passing by a pullover scene should exercise caution. West Virginia law requires drivers to yield to a stopped emergency vehicle.
"Passersby should move to the left lane or as far away from the pullover scene as possible," he said. "If they can't pull over, they should slow down until they pass the area."
On June 19, a West Virginia State Trooper activated his flashing lights before parking his cruiser on the shoulder of Interstate 77 near Princeton. He retrieved some debris from the middle of the road and was returning to his cruiser when he was struck by the passenger side mirror of another vehicle. The injury forced him to crawl off the roadway to radio for help.
Hershberger added drivers should remain polite but they do not have to talk to the officer.
"You have to give the officer your name, driver's license, vehicle registration and proof of insurance, but you do not have to interact if he starts asking questions," he said. "You can respectfully decline to answer any questions, particularly if you feel like the question has nothing to do with the reason you were pulled over."
Hershberger said motorists should not consent to a vehicle search because doing so could cause you to lose your ability to challenge it later in court.
"If they do not have probable cause, your giving them permission wipes any future challenge," he said.
According to Hershberger, drivers being investigated for first-offense drunk driving should consider submitting to a breath test.
"If you refuse to blow, your license could be suspended for a year," he said. "But, under a relatively new West Virginia law, first-offense DUI offenders are eligible for a conditional plea arrangement allowing the charge to be dismissed after successful compliance of a court-ordered sobriety program."