Often, I am asked questions concerning laws, court procedures and public safety. Recently, one question I have been asked repeatedly pertains to traffic stops, and how to be sure that the blue lights in your rear view mirror belong to a law enforcement officer.
According to North Carolina General Statute 20-157, when a law enforcement or emergency vehicle uses their lights and siren, bell or whistle, drivers shall “Immediately drive the same to a position as near as possible, and parallel to the right-hand edge or curb clear of any intersection of streets or highways and shall stop and remain in such position”. Simply put, look for the lights and listen for the siren.
Once you have verified lights, and sirens, determining that these both belong to a legitimate law enforcement officer, can be paramount to your safety. Obviously, verification is much easier during daylight hours. The vast majority of patrol cars belonging to the Iredell County Sheriff’s Office, in addition to the North Carolina Highway Patrol, Mooresville Police Department, Statesville Police Department and Troutman Police Department, are in fact, clearly marked. However, there are cars that are not marked, and often, the stop does not occur during daylight hours, and this is when the matter of verifying the validity of the stop and the authenticity of the officer becomes key.
In the event you are not able to clearly verify the patrol vehicle attempting to conduct a traffic stop, what should you do to remain safe and still abide within the law? First and foremost, indicate that you see the officer and are intending to stop when it is safe to do so. You can do this by turning on your hazard lights and slowing your speed as safely as possible. This indicates to the officer you are aware of his or her presence, and are not trying to elude the officer. Once you have indicated that you are aware of the officer and his or her attempt to conduct a traffic stop, drive slowly to a well-lighted and preferably populated area. I always recommend a 24-hour truck stop, restaurant, fire station or law enforcement agency.
Once you have arrived at a safe location, you can also authenticate the officer by verifying that he or she is wearing a uniform, presents a badge and /or an ID. However, as a gentle reminder, uniforms are easily replicated and badges can be obtained fairly easily. Be aware, remain vigilant, and look for other indications, such as a radio, brass name plates, and sometimes a hat, which can all be hallmark traits of an officer. Be mindful that all officers do not routinely wear a uniform, but still, there should be clear indicators that they are legitimate, often something as simple as introducing themselves and identifying the agency they work for.
A last, but probably most important recommendation that I can give, is that if you have a cellular phone, you can call 911 to verify the authenticity of the stop. Clearly communicate to the telecommunicator the nature of your call, your location and ask them to verify that the officer behind you is a true law enforcement officer conducting the stop. If you are in unfamiliar territory, Iredell County telecommunicators can use technology to very precisely locate you. Be aware that because there are several agencies that serve Iredell County, it may take a small amount of time to locate the agency attempting to make that stop. However, remain on the phone with the telecommunicator until the stop is validated.
A final word to the wise: Individuals need to be extremely careful when they order items for their vehicles. Simply being able to order an item, such as a blue light, does not mean that it is lawful to possess in North Carolina. North Carolina General Statute 20-130(c) very clearly states; It is unlawful for any person to possess a blue light, or to install, activate, or operate a blue light in or on any vehicle in the State other than law enforcement vehicles during official duties. North Carolina General Statue 14-277 prohibits several activities, one of which is Section 4, and states that it is “Unlawfully operates a vehicle on a public street, highway, to public vehicular are with an operating blue light as defined in NCGS 20-130.1”
Equipping ourselves with the knowledge of how to safely stop for an officer, and remaining alert to our surroundings, will ensure safer traffic stops for everyone involved. As always, please reach out to me with any questions and or concerns at (704)878-3180 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.