For this installment of our Ask a Vermont Officer series, we’re going back to the basics.

It may have been some time since you took driver’s education, and some details have slipped your mind. Or maybe you remember everything as it was taught, but law enforcement now has different preferences and expectations of drivers when a motor vehicle stop is conducted.

So we asked Special Operations and Traffic Safety Sgt. Jay Riggen of the Vermont State Police (VSP):

What am I supposed to do if I get pulled over?First: immediately pull to the side of the road and put the vehicle in park. Then await the officer to approach and make contact with you. You do not need to turn the car off or even activate your turn or hazard signals.

In a previous segment in our series, we discussed the possibility of a driver contacting 911 if they have serious doubts that it’s a real police officer trying to pull them over. If the driver thinks it is police though, they should not continue driving as police are specifically trained to identify where on a roadway is the safest place to conduct a stop.

But what if it’s a busy road and I think it’s safer to pull into a side street or parking lot?Riggen said not stopping right away deviates from the norm and can lead to an officer questioning why that’s happening.

“The officer is wondering: is this person trying to conceal drugs? Are they trying to get a weapon ready? Did they just come from a robbery or a felonious assault?” said Riggen. “So all of these things are running through the officer’s mind.

“The operator knows what’s in the operator’s heart, but the police officer doesn’t,” he said.

After making initial contact with the operator, the officer might decide and instruct the driver to relocate to a side street or commercial parking lot, but members of the public should not try to make that decision on their own beforehand.

Do I have to answer questions asked of me?Riggen said the operator of a vehicle does not legally have to answer questions asked by an officer. All that is required of the driver is the presentation identification, registration, and insurance.

However, he added, “Again, officers are hypersensitive to departures from the norm. And it is not normal for a driver to refuse to answer questions of the officer.”

Should I have my documents ready when the officer approaches the vehicle to make contact?According to Riggen, officers need to see three things during a traffic stop in Vermont: a driver’s license, registration, and proof of car insurance.

Riggen said about half of the stops he’s been involved with see the driver try to gather those three documents before the officer approaches the window and makes contact. But he said police prefer that drivers don’t do that.

“I understand that’s probably what they’re doing, but it always does give me a pause to say: They’re probably looking for their documentation, but are they actually doing something more nefarious?” said Riggen.

Before moving to get documents, drivers should tell officers if there are any guns, knives or other weapons in the vehicle – even if they are being carried legally and aren’t somewhere that documentation is being stored, such as the glove box or center console.

Can I ask why I’m being pulled over and argue the reasoning for the stop?Drivers can ask questions to the officer and should expect, and are deserving, of the officer’s respect, courtesy, and answering of fair questions that are asked.

Riggen said if a driver feels like they were wrongly pulled over, the formal process of appeal should be followed instead of arguing with law enforcement about it during the stop. Information on how to do that will be on the ticket issued.

However, Riggen said if a driver feels like they were treated unfairly or rudely, or were pulled over for discriminatory reasons, they should address it – just with the officer’s superiors and at a later time.

“The more the stop is prolonged, the more likely it is – just from exposure – that there’s going to be a crash,” he said.

Riggen said people should instead contact the agency the officer works for and ask to speak with their supervisor about the situation. While he couldn’t speak for every agency in the state, he said VSP will always allow for members of the public to then review the recording of the encounter with the supervisor.

“Officers who act unprofessionally need to be held accountable, but meanwhile, officers who act professionally don’t deserve to be mislabeled, either,” said Riggen.

Can I record the traffic stop?Riggen said people have the right in Vermont to record audio or video of motor vehicle stops and that officers shouldn’t have an issue with it since most agencies, including VSP, are recording themselves through either dashboard or body-worn cameras anyway. He noted that there’s no reason to be sneaky about it and that drivers can just state that they are going to record while during the interaction.

What about wearing masks?During the COVID-19 pandemic, Riggen said it is the driver’s decision as to if they want to wear a mask or not. He noted that if the operator does want to have a mask on, the officer may ask that it be momentarily pulled down for positive identification.

(1) comment

Mike Hoeflich

I always appreciate law enforcement answer questions like this in order to make interaction with the public go smoother. However, I do have a couple of issues with that he said.

First, an individual has the right to no answer questions (invoke 5th amendment) at any time, even on something as simple as a traffic stop. The trooper made it sound like that could make the situation awkward, because it's out of the norm. Utilizing your Constitutional rights shouldn't be awkward to the police. It seems that both LEOs and motorists talk too much, as a whole, on traffic stops already. Why does an officer need to know where the motorist is going and where they came from? Why do officers ask the driver, "do you know why I pulled you over?" If the officer doesn't know, then the driver should be allowed to be on their way. If officers are worried about their safety along the side of the road, the interaction should be short and efficient.

Second, regarding the driver recording the interaction; there is ZERO requirement for a driver or passenger to alert the officer to a recording. This is a one-party state that does not require consent.

Lastly, if a motorist requests camera footage of a stop, they merely need to file a public information request (FOIA) to get that footage.

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