This article seeks to motivate peace officers to look beyond the traffic stop by providing a list of indicators and detection approaches associated with criminal activity. The benefits for looking beyond the initial traffic or equipment violation when conducting a traffic stop are many: reduction of traffic crashes as a result of other drivers viewing the traffic stop and modifying/improving their driving style, even if short-term; social media postings across numerous smart phone applications alerting motorists to proactive traffic enforcement activities; reduction of other roadway-linked crimes such as car thefts, entering autos, motor vehicle hijackings, transportation of stolen goods and burglaries as criminals see the aggressive enforcement; and a reduction of unregistered, unsafe and uninsured vehicles and unlicensed/suspended drivers on the roadways.
Traffic Enforcement Expected
The legislative process for promulgating criminal laws is complex, time consuming and involves all branches of government. Scores of stakeholders are involved in the process and eventually a consensus document is legitimated with the force of law. Laws are enacted with the understanding that peace officers will enforce the provisions of the law with energy and enthusiasm. Some violators might
protest getting stopped for disregarding a stop sign on a Sunday morning at when traffic volume is low. However, the elements of committing a stop sign traffic violation do not provide for “non-enforcement” immunity simply due to traffic volume. If a peace officer witnesses a violation, it is a legitimate and lawful traffic stop, giving the officer the authority to interact with drivers and passengers for the purposes of community safety and detecting criminal activity.
Criminal Indicators—Before the Stop
Predictive profiling is an approach looking from the point of view of criminals based on their actual methods of operation. Predictive profiling is proactive in nature, used to prevent and/or mitigate threats before they evolve into criminal events. Preventing crimes from occurring or capturing criminals even before the victim is aware of the offense are both memorable moments in officers’ careers. As officers observe traffic flow, their constant attention is on those vehicles “distinctive” from other vehicles. Clearly a driver operating in an erratic or unsafe manner will likely get strong consideration for a traffic violation stop. Being alert to vehicles being driven well above or well below normal traffic flow is just one of numerous indicators for officers to evaluate. One of us recently made a traffic arrest after seeing a vehicle approach a green light and slam on the brakes as soon as the light turned amber. It raised his suspicion: Why was the driver being so careful not to run a red light with a marked patrol car in the adjacent lane?
A few key strokes on the laptop and the question was answered: The registered owner possessed a Georgia driver’s license that expired more than eight years earlier. Plus, the license check return provided a photo of the owner that closely matched the driver of the car. This provided probable cause to conduct a traffic stop and take an unlicensed driver off the roadway. Many criminals wanting to avoid detection and apprehension will strive to be the “safest” driver on the road. As a result, they will have both hands on the steering wheel and fully focused on being observant. In fact, they will do almost anything to avoid direct eye contact with officers. They will signal any lane change well in advance thereby reinforcing their camouflage. Also, making lane changes away from officers create both physical and mental distance from detection. On multi-lane roads, they might alter their speed and/or change lanes behind other vehicles when they observe patrol vehicles.
Additionally, when they observe law enforcement, they might quickly turn off the roadway into a business. If an officer observes this maneuver, pulling off the roadway past the business may result in the suspect vehicle immediately re-entering the roadway in the original direction. This overt attempt to separate from the officer is very suspicious. Finally, when stopping at stop signs and seeing a patrol vehicle, drivers attempting to avoid law enforcement contact will wait an agonizing amount of time before proceeding, hoping the officer will go first.
The vehicle may also have heavily tinted windows, an effort to conceal themselves from law enforcement. Criminals seek the benefit of darkness to conceal their criminal conduct. Officers with knowledge of their jurisdiction’s tint laws and possession of a tint meter provide excellent probable cause to interact with citizens.
Another indicator is having disclaimer stickers affixed to their vehicles. These include: “I Love the U.S.A.,” thin blue line, D.A.R.E or “support local law enforcement”-related license plate frames or stickers. These items are used as a method to promote their non-involvement with any kind of illegal activity. The motivation is to persuade/influence law enforcement officers not to pull them over because “those vehicle occupants support law enforcement or good citizenship organizations.”
We believe that the overwhelming majority of peace officers want nothing suggesting an association with law enforcement on their personal vehicles or those of their family members. Ambushes on peace officers and their families are a serious concern. Not advertising your profession on the outside of your personal vehicle allows an officer to avoid unwanted attention from people who would do them harm. Any stickers or license plate frames making a law enforcement connection to you and your family represents an unknown risk. We work with one experienced officer who wears a plain striped shirt over this uniform when commuting to work in his personal vehicle so he will not be viewed as a police officer by other motorists.
The “Blue Light” Special—Lighting 'Em Up!
If, during the course of a traffic stop, a violator stops and immediately exits their vehicle to approach the patrol vehicle, the officer must exit their patrol vehicle immediately and direct loud verbal commands, such as “STOP!” Beyond the officer’s heightened safety concerns when a driver approaches the patrol vehicle, it might be an attempt to distract the officer from approaching the vehicle for a “plain-view” vision assessment. A high percentage of illegal contraband is transported in plain view in what is known as “suicide” loads with minimal concealment. Examples include items such as trash bags, suit cases, electronic goods, jewelry boxes, lawn and garden equipment or copper pipes simply placed in the back seat or pickup bed. Observing suspicious items or circumstances should result in a more thorough inspection.
Upon the activation of emergency equipment signaling a driver to yield to a traffic stop, there are a couple of indicators worth reviewing. If the driver ignores the lights and sirens and continues to drive, occupants might be stalling for time to rehearse a storyline or trying to conceal items on their persons or within the vehicle. While it’s not a chase, it’s a failure to yield indicator. When sensing
that a traffic stop is imminent, drivers might also pull into a driveway or business in an attempt to evade an encounter with law enforcement. If you witness a traffic offense, the violator pulling onto private property prior to you executing a traffic stop does not provide an automatic safe haven. Finally, if during a traffic stop, the violator does not stop in the most convenient and obvious location, but instead maneuvers into a back parking lot or behind a building, this may be an attempt at drawing the officer into an isolated location away from public view for a potential ambush. When you ask yourself, “Where the hell is the driver going?” it would be good instinct to request backup prior to your initial vehicle approach.
Additionally, taking an indirect route on approach to the vehicle or working from the passenger side of the vehicle offers you a more detailed visual assessment of the interior of the vehicle. The violator reasonably expects you to make a straight line approach from your driver’s door to theirs. It’s the violator’s surprise when you approach from the passenger side, in from the darkness, to illuminate the passenger compartment with your flashlight while having staged your weapon for faster deployment if a threat appears. When making that initial vehicle approach, there’s no telling what drama might unfold next. While law enforcement officers are all aware that there are no “routine” traffic stops, most do follow a predictable pattern with the officer in charge of the stop using his or her discretion in finalizing the stop with a warning, a citation or an arrest. However, the initial and all subsequent approaches on a vehicle stop must be conducted with total focus on officer safety.
Selecting a good stop location or directing the violator over the public address speaker to a better stop location will benefit everyone involved: “Driver! Move up 30 feet.” or “Driver! Pull into the next driveway on your right,” or “Driver! Roll down all of your tinted windows.” It's difficult to focus on the vehicle’s occupants when other motorists are speeding by within inches of your backside. Getting both the violator and officer vehicles off the roadway is an immediate priority.
Criminal Indicators from the Vehicle’s Interior Condition
As you approach the vehicle and locate all occupants and conduct a threat assessment by viewing their hands and access to suspicious items; identify yourself, your agency, the reason for the traffic stop and request the driver’s/occupants’ identification and required paperwork. While they are complying with your directions or are providing an explanation for the offense, look carefully into the vehicle’s interior for indicators of criminal activity. As the driver complies and attempts to hand you the requested information, allow a few seconds to evaluate their level of nervousness. Let the driver’s arm hang out there for a few moments instead of instantly reaching for what they are handing you. While drivers will have some nervousness on a traffic stop, they should not be shaking uncontrollably with their neck veins pulsing. These indicators can provide a lot of information on what might really be going on inside the vehicle without ever saying a word. Also note if the driver leaves the turn signals on or takes the extra step to turn on their hazard lights. This is also an indicator of their elevated nervousness or that they expect to be there for an extended period of time. Occupants may also quickly admit the traffic violation and plead with the officer to hurry up and write the ticket. Their motivation is to get away from the officer as quickly as possible before other criminal activity is detected.
If it looks like the occupants are living in the vehicle, ask yourself why? Maybe it’s an extended journey or maybe the vehicle contains contraband and they are unwilling to leave the vehicle parked when unattended. Pillows, blankets, fast food items and clothes are all suggestive of spending more time in the vehicle beyond just commuting from one point to another. If the vehicle is registered out of state, check for power drinks such as Red Bull, Monster or Five Hour Energy-type items. These are indicators that the driver is trying to get somewhere with as few stops as possible and they may be on a strict time limit or may not want to leave the vehicle. Also notice where the luggage is relative to the driver and, if possible, check the trunk for other items. While scanning the interior of the vehicle, you may notice parts of the car that appear out of place. A loose rear seat or backrest may be an indicator of contraband or weapons hidden there. Rear seats are a favorite hiding place for contraband because it offers access to large voids in the trunk area or access panels through the frame into the vehicle’s under-carriage. Also, a spare tire in the back seat could be an indicator that sizeable item(s) might have replaced the tire in the trunk or in the undercarriage spare tire location.
Properly interviewing the driver and occupants will help the officer determine if there is a logical/legal explanation for the out of position parts or if further investigation is warranted. If you notice extra electrical wiring, buttons or switches within the vehicle, why are they there? Maybe it’s an effort at installing radios or speakers, or maybe the switches activate electronically controlled compartments. Extra buttons and switches should elevate the officers’ assessment of the totality of the indicators to make an informed assessment instead of just dismissing it outright. The presence of tools (screwdrivers, pry bars, car jacks) might be indicators that they are used to access concealed compartments under the seats, within interior panels, inside the spare tire, fender wells or under-carriage compartment. Many concealed compartments are done professionally at body shops and designed to be well hidden and secure. Masking agents such as air fresheners, baby powders, cedar shavings, spray deodorizers, etc. are another criminal indictor.
When you are interacting with the occupants, take a moment to take a deep breath of the vehicle’s interior. If the vehicle contains masking agents, ask yourself, “What odor(s) are they trying to conceal?” Drugs or drug making equipment would be on your list of answers to the question. Smells of fresh or burnt marijuana, ether suggestive of cocaine or rotten eggs suggestive of Crystal Meth would provide probable cause for a search. If on approach to the vehicle all of the occupants light cigarettes, it should elevate the
officer’s suspicions as to the sudden decision by the occupants to all smoke at the same time. Seeing air fresheners hanging from every vent and door handle is another indicator. Today it’s quite common for people to have more than one cellphone or electronic communication device. Personal cell, employer issued, and disposable phones are all commonplace. Carrying a disposable, rechargeable cellphone to contact suspects, citizens and attorneys allows the officer to stay in contact but not expose their cellphone number to undesirable attention. Nothing is worse than leaving a message for citizens who now have your personal cellphone number saved. However, seeing multiple cellphones and cellphone chargers within a vehicle are another indicator for criminal activity. Especially if they are going off constantly while the traffic stop is happening. If upon making your traffic stop you see occupants use their cellphones, why the urgency for “phoning a friend?” It could very well be a contact person for updating their movement. Law enforcement officers are not the only ones who need “dispatchers” to monitor their status. Criminals also have an organizational structure and communication methods to monitor location and progress. Public safety dispatchers perform frequent “officer status checks” when officers are on a traffic stop or crime incident. Criminal enterprise dispatchers controlling couriers for contraband also maintain command and control of their assigned assets. These couriers are required to immediately report any contact by law enforcement. Also, there could be multiple vehicles involved in the movement of contraband so officers should remain alert to vehicles pulling up to their traffic stop or watching the traffic stop from a distance. If you notice you are being observed on a traffic stop, request backup immediately and obtain a position of cover where you can observe both the stopped vehicle and the secondary vehicle. Ensuring ready access to a long gun weapon platform is another excellent idea.
We have sought to identify many indicators that law enforcement officers should take notice of when conducting traffic stops. Awareness of these indicators enhances your safety and provides for reasonable suspicions or probable cause to look beyond the initial traffic or equipment violation and discover criminal violations. While a single indicator alone may not elevate officers’ suspicions, considering the totality of indicators when linked together can save officers’ lives, apprehend criminals and result in officers making a prosecutable case.
Conducting Complete Traffic Stops. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: Traffic Law Enforcement Division, 2000.
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