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Traffic stops 101: could education prevent tragedies?

Staff writer Eric Ditmore recently interviewed Ronald Dowdy, a resident of Fayetteville, recounting Ronald’s experience during a recent traffic stop and explaining what North Carolina may be doing to help.

When the night sky behind Ronald Dowdy lit up blue, he was not surprised. It was just before midnight on a July Saturday night in a small beach town and he expected that there would be cops out patrolling. Ronald was not speeding and he had not been drinking. He pulled over and quickly ran through in his head what he should be doing. His window was rolled down and he placed his hands on the steering wheel at ten-and-two.

The officer approached the driver’s side door and asked for his license and registration. He then informed Ronald that he had pulled him over because he had observed Ronald swerving. To Ronald’s surprise he was then asked to step out of the vehicle. Ronald had been stopped before but had never been asked to get out of the vehicle or been searched.

The officer asked him to place his hands on the hood and spread his feet. Ronald complied and the officer conducted a brief pat down, finding nothing. During the search the officer asked if there was anyone else in the Tahoe other than the baby. Ronald was traveling with his 2-year-old daughter. Ronald answered, “No.”

As Ronald was being searched he noticed several people out on balconies beginning to film the incident on their cell phones. At some point during the incident another officer arrived. Everything seemed to be happening so fast and he was experiencing a range of emotions. He was mad, scared, and embarrassed as the traffic stop unfolded. After completing the pat down search, without finding anything, the officer returned the license and registration. Ronald was sent on his way without so much as a warning. For some people, that result would have been a relief. But Ronald was upset and as a way of venting, he took to Facebook posting, “Never been searched in my life by a cop from being stopped with my little girl in the car. SMH no comment!!”

It is also not irrelevant that Ronald is a black male.

Ronald, in his mid-thirties, is a 6’4”, 250 pound former Division I football player. It is also not irrelevant that Ronald is a black male. Recent events in our country have drawn a great deal of attention to the interactions between African-Americans and law enforcement officers in traffic stops. The shooting death of Philando Castile on July 7, 2016 highlighted this issue about one year ago. Castile, along with his girlfriend and her daughter, were allegedly pulled over for a taillight that was not functioning. That traffic stop led to Officer Jeronimo Yanez shooting and killing Castile when he reached for his driver’s license. Castile had already informed the officer that he had a handgun in his possession. In the video and audio of the incident, Castile’s girlfriend and the officer can be heard arguing over why the officer shot him and the instructions he had been given. In June, Officer Yanez was acquitted of all charges surrounding the shooting.

“I just felt like I had no control in the situation.”

Not all traffic stops end as tragically as the one involving Officer Yanez and Philando Castile; however, a quick internet search will reveal that all too often miscommunications and misperceptions lead to situations that are harmful to the relationship between the African-American community and law enforcement. Ronald summarized the emotions he went through by saying, “I just felt like I had no control in the situation.” He went on to explain that he was angered by the officer’s tone and the lack of explanation, but that he knew he could not show his feelings without escalating the situation. His emotions swayed between anger and embarrassment as he saw the onlookers videoing him and his daughter in the back seat. The scene felt unreal as it unfolded and, without any explanation, Ronald had no idea why it was happening.

After a few days passed Ronald had time to think about what happened. When asked if he thought his race had anything to do with the situation he replied, “I don’t know. I can’t honestly say that, I don’t know, maybe he was in a bad mood, I’m a big guy, I just don’t know.” Ronald went on to acknowledge that it is likely the officer had no idea what his race was at the onset of the stop. He also wondered if he could have done something differently. He spent time thinking about the way traffic stops are conducted and tried to envision a way that officers could protect themselves without making citizens feel the way he did.

When asked about the incident, Ronald came to the realization that he did not even know what agency he had been stopped by. Without receiving a citation or a warning, he had no documentation of the incident. Ronald was stopped near an establishment called The Trailer Bar in Surf City, NC.   Based on the location of the stop, there are at least 6 possible agencies with authority to enforce traffic violations that could have been involved. The most likely two, Surf City Police Department and North Topsail Police Department, had no record of the traffic stop but were quick to respond and expressed a willingness to review the situation if they had been involved.

In the law enforcement community, it is not unusual to hear training officers explain that there is no such thing as a routine traffic stop. FBI statistics reveal that in 2015, six officers were killed during traffic stops and that four more were killed during the first half of 2016. If there is no such thing as a routine traffic stop for officers, the same must also hold true for the citizens that may be involved in a traffic stop only a few times in their life. The North Carolina State Legislature made a move to put law enforcement and citizens on the same page when they recently sent House Bill 21 to North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper.

The bill requires the Division of Motor Vehicles to consult with the State Highway Patrol, the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association, and the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police.

The bill was introduced in January by two Democrats and two Republicans. The bills primary sponsor was Democratic Representative Kenneth Goodman of Rockingham. Representative Beverly Earle, another Democrat, along with Republican Representatives Allen McNeill and John Faircloth, co-sponsored the bill. House Bill 21 seeks to require the Division of Motor Vehicles to include a section on traffic stop procedures within their handbook. Those handbooks would also be provided to the Department of Public Instruction for use in the State’s driver education program. The bill requires the Division of Motor Vehicles to consult with the State Highway Patrol, the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association, and the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police. When speaking about the bill, Representative Goodman told the Raleigh News and Observer, “It may save some lives.” The bill was introduced in January and moved through the legislature with strong bipartisan support.

This bill comes only a year after House Bill 972, which blocked the release of police recordings to the public, was passed and signed into law. Governor Pat McCrory, and then State Attorney General Roy Cooper found themselves in opposition as to the effect of H.B. 972. Attorney General Roy Cooper believed the bill would foster the already present distrust of law enforcement in controversial situations. On the other hand, Governor McCrory believed the law would provide “uniformity, clarity and transparency” by establishing clear standards for the release of police recordings.

Law enforcement procedures during traffic stops, and law enforcement procedures generally, are topics that are not going to go away. With House Bill 21, North Carolina will join other states that have decided that education is one way to resolve at least some portion of the tension that Ronald, and many others, have felt during traffic stop encounters.

Eric Ditmore
About Eric Ditmore (7 Articles)
Eric is a third year law student who serves as a Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. Originally from Linden, NC., Eric received his undergraduate degree in education from Fayetteville State University. Before beginning law school, he was a high school teacher and a deputy with the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office. During his time at Campbell, Eric has worked with the Cumberland County District Attorney's Office, the Fayetteville Police Department, and the law firm of Lewis, Deese, and Nance. His is interested in pursuing work in either family law or as a legal advisor for a law enforcement agency.