What were my rights in this 2010 traffic stop?
September 21, 2023 7:23 PM   Subscribe

I found myself thinking about traffic stop I had in 2010 and wondering if it had to happen at all or if I had the right to leave. I'm obviously not pursuing any action now; I purely want to know what my options were, given the unprofessionalism of the officers involved. Could I have just left? You are not my lawyer.

This happened in the very small southwest town of Riner, VA. I am a white woman, and I was 30 when this happened.

I was in Riner to meet someone for lunch at a pizza place. I don't the layout of the town and had some trouble finding the pizza place and had to turn around.

I pulled over by the restaurant and another car pulled up right behind me. A woman got out and said that I had cut her off and she had called the cops. I can't remember how she phrased that she'd be sitting there in her car, watching me until the police came. (Remember that the police didn't witness me driving at all.)

I stayed in the car until two police officers arrived. I remember there were minimal questions about the driving incident and soon they were asking me questions about where I was going, what I was doing, etc. (A female cop told me I was going to end up strangled in a field.)For the sake of brevity, I won't tell the rest of the story.

It just now occurred to me that I may not have had to legally stay there in my car and deal with the cops at all. Would I have been charged with leaving the scene or anything since there was no accident? What if I'd left my car and walked into the pizza place?

Obviously this stop was problematic in a number of ways, but it's only now that I'm wondering about the existence of the whole stop.

Based on your knowledge about the law, motorists' rights, etc, was I legally required to stay put in the first place?
posted by mermaidcafe to Law & Government (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
No. Some rando told you they called the cops. That’s all that happened.

I could tell you via this post right now that I’ve called the cops and you have to stay where you are. You would not take that seriously because it’s over the internet. But it’s the same principle.
posted by kerf at 7:26 PM on September 21, 2023 [9 favorites]

She might have thought she was performing some kind of citizen's arrest, but I strongly doubt that so called reckless driving necessitates an arrest.
posted by sacrifix at 7:28 PM on September 21, 2023 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: She might have thought she was performing some kind of citizen's arrest, but I strongly doubt that so called reckless driving necessitates an arrest.
The cops asked me about drugs, medications, etc, and me being the naive, too-honest person I am, I said I'd taken my Zoloft that morning. They kept threatening to arrest me for DUID because I admitted to taking Zoloft.
posted by mermaidcafe at 7:33 PM on September 21, 2023 [1 favorite]

8 or 9 years ago, I was stopped for speeding in a small town in Nevada. I don't think I was speeding. Cop wrote the ticket, then started asking me questions, like Had I ever smoked weed? I asked if I could leave, he said Yes, and I did. I think I was being set up for civil forfeiture, though I had little cash and no drugs. It was extremely skeevy. Small town cops have wide latitude and supervision varies a lot. Traffic tickets are profitable.
posted by theora55 at 7:38 PM on September 21, 2023 [8 favorites]

It sounds like these cops behaved egregiously and it's no wonder that you are still unsettled by the memory after 13 years. I remember a similar event from about 1993. In my case, the cops asked if they could take a polaroid of me, and guess what I did? I said yes! I have no idea why they did that. I also know today I'd say no. If they are asking permission to do something, that means they don't have the right to do it.

You might like to read the National Lawyers Guild's booklet about your rights when talking to cops. It's geared toward street protesters and other activists, but I think some sections really apply to your situation, in particular this one:
What if the police stop me on the street?

Ask if you are free to go. If the answer is yes, consider just
walking away. If the police say you are not under arrest, but are
not free to go, then you are being detained. The police can pat
down the outside of your clothing if they have reason to suspect
you might be armed and dangerous. If they search any more
than this, say clearly, “I do not consent to a search.”
I'm sure you already know that it would have been much better to decline to answer their questions, but obviously that can be really hard. The simple question "Am I free to go?" is something I keep in mind all the time, because ending the interaction quickly is much better than continuing it and having the cops get their emotions riled up and start trying weirder and weirder things like those questions they asked you.

The whole booklet, in several languages, is here:

I think if you had quietly gone about your business and gone into the restaurant before they arrived, they may or may not have followed you and bothered you there. It's hard to say. But certainly you were not required to wait in your car for them to show up. Please don't be sad about anything you did, or blame yourself. You did your best with the information you had, in the situation you were forced into. But do have a plan for next time!
posted by fritley at 7:54 PM on September 21, 2023 [20 favorites]

Mod note: Comment removed. Please be respectful and avoid using the term "karen" in a derogatory manner or referring to someone as "a karen".
posted by Brandon Blatcher (staff) at 5:19 AM on September 22, 2023 [6 favorites]

The whole thing may have been a scam. The first person watches for an unfamiliar car, face, or out of state license plate, follows and calls it in, the cops show up and look for goodies and/or entertainment, or at the very least generate some revenue. If you hadn't said you were meeting someone, it might have been even worse. Strangled in a ditch, maybe.

And that's assuming they were actually cops in the first place.

You experienced unprofessional behavior for any other line of work, but this was industry-standard. You will always get caught off guard if you think they're there to help you in some way. Always ask if you're free to go/being detained, because it asks every question you might otherwise ask, but without escalating: why do you need this information, what is the problem, why are you collecting data on me.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:49 AM on September 22, 2023

I think you did the right thing to keep yourself safe in that moment and I’m glad you were in front of an open restaurant. But no, a “citizens arrest” like this, no reason to hang around. No reason for the cops to question you and, in fact, you could have easily turned it on the person for harassment. I’m sorry that happened. So weird and unsettling.
posted by amanda at 9:42 AM on September 22, 2023

To detain anyone an officer needs a “reasonable articulable suspicion” (this is a term of art sometimes called a “RAS”) that you have committed a crime or are about to commit a crime.

A traffic stop suffices but only up to the point where the ticket has been issued.

In your case if she did call the cops they usually have enough to briefly detain you. However that period ends once they determine a crime has not been committed. At that point you are legally allowed to leave.

It’s sticky and cops aren’t good about this. But the thing to do is to

1. Ask if you’re being detained.
2. Ask why you’re being detained. Specifically ask for them to provide you with crime for which you are being accused.
3. Refuse to answer any further questions.
4. Continually ask if you’re free to leave. If they say “no” go back to step 1.

There’s no “just leaving” without the risk of getting tagged with some form of interference or obstruction charge. Your main out is bringing a civil suit for them impinging your civil rights but that’s a long shot without camera or video evidence.

Check out the “Lackluster Channel” on YouTube who does a ton of videos of these types of things if you want to fall down a rabbit hole.
posted by bitdamaged at 1:02 PM on September 22, 2023

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