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Proposed Bill Would Put Traffic Stop Procedure in Driver's Ed Curriculum

Jones & Blount

Changes may be on the way for North Carolina’s driver’s education curriculum. If a bill filed in the state House of Representatives passes, prospective drivers will learn how to interact with law enforcement officers during a traffic stop.

The legislation, known as House Bill 21, has bipartisan support and proponents say it makes roadside interactions between motorists and officers clearer and safer.

But not everyone is on board with the bill.

Chris Thomas has this.

Its night and your rearview mirror: flashing, blue lights.

“Don’t make any sudden moves, don’t reach under the seat –”

What do you do?

“Keep your hands on the steering wheel. Turn on the dome lighting in your car so the officer can see into your car.”

Eddie Caldwell is Executive Vice President and General Counsel for the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association, which represents all 100 Sheriff’s Department in North Carolina and lobbies the General Assembly on their behalf.

“Don’t reach into the glove compartment. Many of those things could be very innocuous, very non-threatening to the driver – who’s reaching under the seat to get their purse, to get their driver’s license or reaching in the glove compartment to get their driver’s license. But to the officer approaching the vehicle, they may be concerned that they’re reaching for a gun or another weapon.”

Caldwell says these are common sense procedures for civilians interacting with police officers, though they aren’t always approached that way.

“I certainly don’t think its second nature for most folks because most folks don’t get stopped by law enforcement very frequently and when they do, they kind of panic and think ‘oh my goodness, am I going to get a ticket’ ‘are they’re looking for somebody else and they’ve stopped my car?’ And so I don’t think its second nature for hardly any of the drivers.”    

He touts it as a way to improve officer-motorists interactions – making roadside expectations required reading for license holders. The Sheriff’s Association is one of the three stakeholders listed in the bill.

Should HB 21 become law, the Sheriff’s Association, State Highway Patrol, and the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police will draft procedures in conjunction with the Division of Motor Vehicles.

The bill is short on details regarding the proposed curriculum – and Caldwell says that’s how it should be.

“They recognize that it’s a policy issue and that it’s a public concern and what the bill does is it directs the experts…to all work together to design the end product and that’s the way government ought to work.”

The bill was referred to the NC House’s K-12 Education committee in late February and hasn’t budged since. But it does enjoy support across party and geographic lines.

Several representatives from predominantly rural districts are listed as the bill’s co-sponsors, including Democrat Shelly Willingham. He represents House District 23 in Edgecombe and Martin counties.

He wants to show support for representatives in more populated districts – even though he doesn’t believe it’s a major issue in rural eastern North Carolina.

“And hopefully when we have bills that mainly affect rural areas that we’ll get some of those urban folks to support our bills, too.”  

Black motorists are disproportionately pulled over and arrested by sheriff’s agencies in both Edgecombe and Martin counties, according to figures from the North Carolina Department of Justice. That’s also the case for the Rocky Mount and Tarboro Police Departments – where 77.1 and 67.9 percent of traffic stops, respectively, involved black motorists in 2016.

Willingham still says his constituents have solid law enforcement relations.

“I think the police departments in the two cities and all the towns there have really good relationships with the community and so we really haven’t had any problems there.”

But HB 21 skeptics like Mike Meno – who represents the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union – wonder if there are underlying motives. In its present form, only law enforcement agencies would create the traffic stop curriculum. Civilian and civil rights organizations like the ACLU would be left out.

He worries the bill, if enacted, will shift an unfair burden of responsibility onto especially vulnerable members of the population.

“Police have certain vested interests in these interactions but we need to remember that the rest of us have rights as well, that the Constitution protects those rights for everyone. And so we think it would be really important if organizations that work on civil rights issues, that provide legal defense to individuals are also consulted and allowed to weigh in on this bill and the educational pieces and the educational pieces attached to it.”

Meno believes the bill shows promise, especially for young people who may be frightened during a traffic stop.

“I think young people also have a right to know their rights when dealing with law enforcement and young people, more than a lot of others, might not know how to assert those rights. So, just because you’re young doesn’t mean you’re not protected by the Constitution.”

He hopes the state will remind new drivers of their rights as well as their responsibilities. Last year, State Highway Patrol reported 46,727 traffic stops with motorists under the age of 20.

“There’s certainly nothing wrong with trying to educate the public about the expectations law enforcement have during police interactions but I think it is equally, if not more important, that we make sure the public is also educated about their rights to remain silent, to not consent to searches, to ask simple questions like ‘am I free to go’ if you are being questioned by a law enforcement officer.

But some supporters of House Bill 21 say that isn’t the point of the legislation and while North Carolina Sheriff’s Association representative Caldwell says there will be time to hear from all kinds of stakeholders, this bill isn’t about civil liberties.

“This is not a miniature legal course in Constitutional rights and other rights under the statute. This is a bill about safety and about uniform things people should do in order to communicate the right intentions to a law enforcement officer that’s pulling them over.”

He said if motorists’ rights are added to the driver’s education curriculum, it can come through another bill.

“If they want somebody to teach a class on the legal rights of a motorist, that’s a different bill and a different issue. That’s not what this bill’s about at all. This bill’s about public safety, motorist safety, and officer safety – not about Constitutional rights.

The bill is still in its earliest stages, Rep. Shelly Willingham says, and should it come up on a committee’s agenda, he believes more organizations will come to the discussion table.

“When a bill goes into committee, we try to get the input from stakeholders. And I’m certain that the bill will be amended and changed because what you start out with in many cases it’s either less or more than when it comes out on the other end.”  

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Your Rights during a Traffic Stop (from the ACLU):

  • You have the right to remain silent. That is true whether you’ve just been temporarily detained or formally arrested.
  • You do not have to consent to a search of yourself or your car... Keep in mind, however, that if the police have probable cause to search your car, or if you’ve been placed under arrest, they can search you, and sometimes your vehicle, whether you give your consent or not.
  • If you are arrested, you have the right to ask for an attorney and should do so immediately.
  • If you’ve been stopped (but not arrested), you have the right to ask the police whether you’re free to go.
  • As difficult as it can be, try to remain calm and be as polite as you can.

Source: Time Magazine - "What to Do if You Get Pulled Over by a Cop," July 23, 2015

Guidelines from DMV.org:

  • Pull over in a safe, well-lit area, preferably where you won’t disrupt the flow of traffic.
  •  Roll down your window completely
  • Place both hands on the steering wheel until instructed to retrieve your license, registration, insurance card, etc.

(Text of House Bill 21)