Traffic Stop Etiquette


It’s fairly late, and I’m leaving a Chilli’s where I’ve been having dinner with some friends. It’s an area I’m not terribly familiar with and unfortunately the Eye of Sauron (aka Google) has not cast its gaze across the new construction recently finished in this area and as a result their maps app on my phone is giving some pretty bad directions. I finally sort out where I’m supposed to be going to hit the major thoroughfare that’s going to take me to the next major thoroughfare that actually gets me home when I notice that some jerk speeds up and gets right on my bumper. As in he’s so close his headlights are barely visible in my rear view mirror.

“I wonder what this dude’s malfunction is.” I say to myself. policelights

As soon as the last letter passed my lips, an amazing technicolor light show begins to emanate from the vehicle behind me. Ah. So that’s why he’s on my bumper. I haven’t quite memorized the headlight profile of Ford’s latest interceptor vehicles so it catches me completely off guard. My brain still expects a Crown Vic. I signal, pull over to the shoulder, and put on my hazards.

One of the most common questions I get from folks new to concealed carry is how a concealed carrier interacts with a police officer without triggering a shooting. Some may think that sounds a bit paranoid but any time there is an interaction between a police officer and an armed citizen there is at least the possibility (however remote) for tragedy. It’s been a while since I looked at the stats, but I believe that the traffic stop is still the most common setting for a police use of lethal force. The police officer has no idea who he is pulling over and what their intentions are. It could be a car full of nuns on their way to a prayer meeting. Or it could be this:


Most stops are pretty routine but the officer who assumes that the next stop will be routine sets himself up for disaster. To him, you are an unknown contact. If you had to interact with an unknown contact who happened to be armed, how cautious would you be?

The citizen on the other side of the blue lights knows very little about the officer as a human being, but we have the luxury of knowing that police officers in a proper uniform driving a proper police car are more than likely not pulling us over so they can rob us. Good guys do not have halos, but a police uniform in the United States is about as close as you can get to a reliable visual indicator of “good guy”. When we’re stopped, we know more about him than he does about us.

So let’s talk a bit about what you can expect during a traffic stop and some techniques that I use to try and put the officer at ease.

When I am pulled over, I do the following

  • Pull over as quickly as it is practical to do so. Police officers will typically only hit the blue lights when they assess that it’s safe to actually conduct a stop, so I go with that.
  • Roll down my window. Should be pretty obvious as to why.
  • If it is dark out, I turn on my dome light. The more the officer can see, the better.
  • Before the officer approaches, I get my wallet out, open it on the dash, and get my driver’s license and CCW permit out. I can usually accomplish this before the officer approaches my car.
  • I keep my hands on the steering wheel, clearly visible to the officer at all times with my license and permit held in the fingers. Police officers are trained to watch someone’s hands. If mine stay in his sight he has less reason to be worried.
  • When asked for my license and registration, I will hand the officer my CCW permit on top of my license. Some states require permit holders to inform police officers that they are carrying a weapon. My home state of Virginia has no such requirement, but I believe it’s good to be in the habit of informing the officer right off the bat by presenting your permit. I even hand over my permit on occasions where I’m not actually carrying a weapon because in many states your driver’s license is flagged when you are issued a CCW permit. This means that when the officer runs a check on your license dispatch or his computer will tell him that you’ve been issued a permit. I’d rather be the one relating that information, personally.
  • After I’ve handed the officer my CCW permit on top of my license, I return my hand to the steering wheel. This is a biggie. I’ve just told the officer I’m carrying a weapon. I want him to process this information. I don’t want to start grabbing at stuff while he’s still figuring out what’s going on. I wait for the two inevitable questions.
  • When asked if I am armed and where I am carrying the weapon, I do not gesture toward the weapon with my hands! I use a verbal description of the weapon’s location like “Right side, appendix” to give the officer an idea of where the gun actually is…while my hands stay on the wheel. I have been asked these two questions on every stop I’ve experienced. It’s understandable…if I was stopping somebody with a gun I’d want to know where it is, too. I would also prefer if they didn’t move their hands near that weapon.
  • I will then ask for permission to retrieve my registration from the glove box. Even though the officer already asked for the registration earlier in the stop, the situation has changed dramatically since then. He now knows he’s dealing with an armed individual. Asking for permission to retrieve my registration serves to demonstrate my good intentions and keeps the officer feeling in control of the stop.
  • While my left hand stays on the wheel, I will retrieve my registration with my right hand and present it to the officer, and then I put my right hand back on the wheel. 

Generally by this point in the stop the officer has figured out that even though I’m armed, I’m not a threat. So far I have never had an officer indicate any desire to actually disarm me during a stop. If it does happen, I’ll be nice and cooperative but I won’t touch my gun. If they want to disarm me, they’re going to have to do it.

The officer who stopped me after my trip to Chilli’s handled the stop well. He positioned his car to make maximum use of his spotlight. Between the light show from the various flashing lights on his cruiser and the almost painful number of lumens being put out by his spotlight, I couldn’t see a bloody thing until he was right on me. I only knew he was coming near the window when I heard his footsteps. He kept himself positioned so that I had to interact with him at an awkward angle. After I asked for permission to go to the glovebox and retrieve my registration, he followed my hand with his flashlight the whole way there and back. You should expect an officer to use these kind of procedures when they conduct a traffic stop because it gives them as much advantage as possible should they happen to pull over someone who means them harm.

After I handed over my registration, the officer asked me if I knew why I had been pulled over. I had just joined the highway and I hadn’t yet reached highway speed, so I knew I wasn’t speeding. I had absolutely no clue why he had pulled me over.

My car’s headlights have an “Auto” setting that is supposed to turn them on when the sensors on the car determine it is dark. The area I was in was so well lit that apparently the sensors didn’t see the need to turn the headlights on. I, being a dingus, didn’t double check.

“Often when we see someone driving without headlights…”

“They are inebriated.” I interrupted. The officer looked puzzled for a second. I’m guessing that the term “inebriated” isn’t often used with correct diction by people who are intoxicated. It’s late on a Saturday night and I’m driving without my headlights on. I can absolutely understand where he’s coming from.

“I’m not inebriated, sir. Just stupid.” I continued with a grin.

“So you’ve had nothing to drink tonight?”

“Nothing but iced tea.”

He checked my license to make sure I wasn’t a wanted man, then gave everything back to me and sent me on my way.

That leads me to the final element of what I do when I’m pulled over: Be nice.

I find that I get a lot farther with people when I don’t react to them out of pique even if I am not the least bit happy about the circumstances of our interaction. I don’t like getting pulled over. It’s always inconvenient and sometimes it’s damned expensive. Even so, being a jerk about things is not going to serve my interests. I’ve found that concealed carriers who are polite and show consideration for the officer’s position and situation often get verbal warnings instead of an actual citation.

If you haven’t developed a standard approach to being pulled over while carrying concealed, I humbly suggest adopting my strategy as outlined above. As a concealed carrier, your chances of being shot by the police during a traffic stop are pretty minimal, but it doesn’t hurt to adopt some simple practices designed to prevent any misunderstandings.


19 thoughts on “Traffic Stop Etiquette”

  1. I prefer to save myself some hassle and not automatically provide a CHL or make any reference to being armed unless asked.

    Also ought to mention: Don’t have a gun in any place where your registration or proof of insurance might be.

      1. Well, yeah, I thought that was a given. I haven’t yet lived in a state where it was required to do so. Obviously if it’s the law one would do well to abide by it.

  2. Yes, by statute in Ohio if you have a CCW and are stopped by law enforcement for any reason you are required to notify the officer immediately that you are carrying. The officer doesn’t have to ask, it is your responsibility. Also, if the plates on the car are in your name it will be recorded that you have a CCW. In Ohio just touching your weapon without the officer telling you to do so is a felony. Generally the cops in Ohio are pretty decent. Last year I got stopped for not making a complete stop at a stop sign. The cop thanked me for telling him I had a firearm in the glove box. Of course my registration and proof of insurance were in the glove box too and I told him he was welcome to remove my gun and I could get them out for him but he said just forget about those documents, he didn’t want them. I got the ticket but it was a pleasant stress free encounter.

    1. Kinda glad I don’t live in Ohio then (though I hear y’all have got some awesome rollercoasters), though in Oregon I had a similar situation with a pistol in the glove box. I told the officer after he asked for my proof of insurance, he cleared it (being sure to do it so the chambered round ejected into the passenger seat instead of on the ground!) and when we were done he asked me to wait until he had driven off before I loaded it. I was pretty nervous but the cop was great tbh.

  3. My procedure is similar to yours, but I don’t get my wallet and ID out ahead of time. I pull over, window down, dome light on , vehicle off and hands on top the steering wheel. I don’t want the officer to see me rummaging around in my pockets or in the vehicle compartments in preparation for his approach. He won’t know if I’m staging my wallet or staging a weapon.

  4. How do you reach for your wallet/ID/CCW while keeping your hands visible? Do you have a special talent? 😉 The only stop I was in that went horribly wrong (loooonnnggg before I started to carry) was because I started reaching around for stuff before the officer had even made contact with me. Many people (CCW and crims alike) conceal weapons either at the 4-5 o’clock position (7-8 oclock if you’re lefty) and/or in between the seat and the console. They also tend to keep their wallets on the same side. How would a cop distinguish whether you’re reaching for a handgun or a wallet from a vantage point behind your vehicle (where their view is significantly obstructed)?

    Also, FWIW: letting someone who is unfamiliar with your particular carry piece draw that weapon from your holster (especially AIWB) seems like a great way to get your carry ammo tested on yourself. That being said, some cops won’t let you draw the weapon and hand it to them, so at the end of the day, you’re left with whatever option Johnny Law gives you.

    1. I get my wallet out before the officer approaches the window. In the most recent instance, I had my wallet in hand before I’d completely stopped the car.

  5. Great article and information for people who haven’t ever given this matter any consideration. I do it the same way the author does it and always have.

  6. A similar alternative: Turn on interior lights. Roll down all windows since officer approach can me made from either side (I try not to speed in the dead of winter). I then put both hands out driver’s window. This allows the officer to see my hands before exiting police vehicle and limits distracting movements. I wait for officer to tell me what to provide. I then tell officer where I will be reaching. If there is a chance officer will observe gun I let them know ahead of time where on my body gun is located.

  7. The cautions expressed here are applicable whether or not you are armed or have a carry permit. Especially good advice is the “be polite”. The police officer’s job is spooky enough without you giving him any additional need for caution.

  8. Well thought out procedure.

    Here in South Africa there are a lot of crimes being committed by criminals wearing stolen/provided police uniforms. They will also have a blue light and sometimes even markings on their vehicles.

    Therefore as a first step we add: Acknowledge that you have seen the officer, slow down and drive to the nearest well lit fuel station or police station where their are other people/cameras.

  9. My wallet is always in the console. I never take my hands off the top of the wheel once a stop has been initiated. In NC we have to tell them we are carrying so the first words out of my mouth are “I have a CHP and I am using it”. Got stopped on the way to a 3 gun match with two friends in the car. When he asked where my gun was I gave him a pretty long list. 6 pistols, 4 shotguns, 4 AR’s and a lot of ammo. He asked what war we were going to. I told him about the match and it went well from there.

  10. We role-play traffic stops when I teach concealed carry. My recommendations differ from yours a little.

    * Pull over to the right and stop immediately. Put the car in park (or neutral, if a manual), parking brake on, foot off the brake pedal.
    * Turn on the dome light if it’s dark out.
    * Don’t reach for anything, including your license, wallet, or other paperwork.
    * Wind down the window completely on whatever side the officer is approaching.
    * Hands on the wheel or on the car windowsill, still and unmoving.
    * If there is more than one officer, your reflex will be to talk to both of them. Don’t. Ignore the “cover” officer and speak only to the “contact” officer unless the “cover” officer speaks to you. Moving your attention between the two of them can look like you’re planning to fight or escape.
    * Don’t use the word “gun” as this is a codeword that the officers use.
    * My state does not have duty to inform but I recommend that you do so anyway. I suggest phrasing like this: “Good evening officer. I want to avoid any potential for misunderstanding: I am a concealed carry licensee and I am carrying a firearm.”
    * When moving your hands for any reason, talk your way to wherever you’re going. “Of course, sir. My license is in my wallet, right front pocket. I’ll get that now.” When not getting something for the officer, return your hand to the wheel or windowsill and leave it there, still.
    * Other than touching your firearm (don’t ever do that during a traffic stop!) do whatever the officer tells you. If the officer does something dumb or illegal take it up in court later.
    * Be nice. I use the words, “Officer,” “Sir,” “Trooper,” a lot.

  11. I think it should be pointed out for any of the “AM I BEING DETAINED” crowd that this advice doesn’t negatively impact your ability to stand by your rights as a citizen. You are still free to deny a search of your car, or to politely insist that you be detained or let go after initial pleasantries are out of the way and the situation has been established.

    Although it does seem like a good reason to not keep your registration and your gun in the same compartment of your car.

  12. “Roll down my window.”
    This is actually a fairly contentious point. Rolling down your window yields unsolicited access to the environment inside your car. If the officer believes he “detects the odor of XYZ”, he now has reasonable cause to search you & your vehicle.

    Point is, without being oppositional, it can be legally useful to compel the officer to give you the order, “roll down your windows” (thereby forcing *him* to have reasonable cause) instead of you voluntarily waiving your 4th amendment rights.

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