There is a video showing a female cop suddenly pull her pistol and point it at a driver’s head during a routine traffic stop. Then there was a subsequent video providing commentary and advice about the situation. However, the information was incorrect. There’s unfortunately a lot of misinformation floating around about the rights of vehicle occupants during traffic stops. It’s important to know your actual rights and not misinformation that could really cause you some serious problems.
What are your basic constitutional rights at a traffic stop?
The Fourth Amendment prohibits police officers from prolonging a traffic stop beyond the time necessary to investigate (and write a ticket for) a traffic violation unless the officers have reasonable suspicion that the stopped vehicle’s occupants are engaging in other crimes. Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. 348, 354-56 (2015).
Officers may detain the driver only for the time necessary to complete the tasks associated with the reason for the stop. The Supreme Court has provided a list of acceptable tasks that are connected generally to safety and driver responsibility:
Officers will usually question a driver about the traffic infraction; they will run the driver’s license plate; they will request and review the vehicle’s registration and insurance; they will check for outstanding warrants; and lastly they will write a ticket. Officers also commonly question drivers about their travel plans. So long as they do so during the time that they undertake the traffic-related tasks for the infraction that justifies the stop (Arizona v. Johnson), officers may also ask questions about whether the driver has drugs or weapons in the car, or even walk a drug-sniffing dog around the car (Illinois v. Caballes). These unrelated tasks turn a reasonable stop into an unreasonable seizure if it “prolongs” the stop. Officers may not avoid this rule by “slow walking” the traffic-related aspects of the stop to get more time to investigate other potential crimes.
Once the traffic-related basis for the stop ends (or reasonably should have ended), the officer must justify any further “seizure” on a reasonable suspicion that the driver is committing those other crimes. See Hernandez v. Boles (6th Cir. 2020).
Additionally, “a police officer may as a matter of course order the driver of a lawfully stopped car to exit his vehicle.” Maryland v. Wilson, 519 U.S. 408, 410, 117 S.Ct. 882, 137 L.Ed.2d 41 (1997) (citing Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106, 98 S.Ct. 330, 54 L.Ed.2d 331 (1977) (per curiam)). That rule, the justification for which is officer safety, extends to passengers, as well. Wilson, 519 U.S. at 414–15, 117 S.Ct. 882. (United States v. Vaughan, 700 F.3d 705 (4th Cir. 2012)).
As for the 9th Circuit, where this encounter took place, “pointing guns at persons who are compliant and present no danger is a constitutional violation.” Thompson v. Rahr, 885 F.3d 582 (9th Cir. 2018) (citing Baird v. Renbarger , 576 F.3d 340, 346 (7th Cir. 2009)).
We do not discount the concern for officer safety when facing a potentially volatile situation. But where the officers have an unarmed felony suspect under control, where they easily could have handcuffed the suspect while he was sitting on the squad car, and where the suspect is not in close proximity to an accessible weapon, a gun to the head constitutes excessive force.
Original video here.
Review video with the misinformation here.