What is the most tactically sound practice for running a driver's license during a traffic stop?

Because traffic stops have multiple phases, there are several considerations around police traffic stop procedures


One of law enforcement's most highly analyzed and tactically debated activities is the traffic stop.

One reason for this could be that although there are millions of traffic stops conducted by police each year that end without incident, some traffic stops result in a fatality of either the officer or an occupant.

Additionally, because traffic stops have multiple phases, there are several considerations around police traffic stop procedures. For example, should an officer use a driver-side or passenger-side approach? Should an officer bring a driver back to their patrol car to conduct interviews or direct them to stay in their car?

Because traffic stops have multiple phases, there are several considerations around police traffic stop procedures.
Because traffic stops have multiple phases, there are several considerations around police traffic stop procedures. (Photo/Police1)

These and many other questions spark debates among officers about which tactic is superior or should be considered best practice.

Debates such as these are extremely valuable not only because they require officers to analyze their tactics thoughtfully and pursue a deeper understanding of critical job functions, but also because officers typically discover that both sides of the debate frequently have merit. For example, depending on the specific factors of an incident, one tactic may work well in a given situation, while another may be better suited in a different situation.

Where to run the driver’s license?

I was recently asked to give an opinion about one such tactical debate involving traffic stops. Specifically, what is the most tactically sound practice for running a driver's license during a traffic stop?

  • Option 1: The officer runs the subject while remaining at the driver's door behind the B-pillar.
  • Option 2: The officer returns to their patrol vehicle to run the driver's license.

The argument for remaining at the subject's vehicle behind the B-pillar while running the driver's license is that the officer has gained some ground, which some view as a tactical advantage. After gaining this ground, it could be helpful should the subject become combative or if they are wanted.

I understand this argument, but I believe several cons must be considered when evaluating this tactic. First, the officer is in extremely close proximity to the subject while splitting cognitive functions. They are running the driver while trying to keep a visual of their hands and watching for furtive movements. With the driver having the action-reaction advantage, this puts the officer in a precarious position. If there are multiple occupants, this puts the officer in a near-impossible situation because not only are they close to a potential attack, it would not be possible to effectively monitor each subject's behavior while running the driver's license. Traffic may also be a potential threat, splitting the officer's cognitive thought processes further.

Also, even if the subject is wanted, the best practice would not be for the officer to immediately go hands-on but instead wait for a backing unit. However, I know in some jurisdictions, that's not possible due to the unavailability of a backing officer.

Finally, I know some officers have earpieces on their radios, but many do not, so this is a consideration when running the license near the vehicle within the hearing range of the subject. If the subject hears that the officer is running them, this could ignite the driver into a desperate attempt to fight or flee from the officer, especially if they know they have a warrant for their arrest.

The golden triad of desired objectives

Because of all these factors, I do have an opinion of an ideal tactical position for the officer, specifically when their "spidey senses" are telling them something may be amidst with the driver. That position would be at the back of their patrol vehicle, positioned near the rear bumper on the passenger side. This position considers traffic conditions and creates time, distance and cover between the officer and a potentially violent attack. In the world of police use of force tactics, these are the golden triad of desired objectives. Suppose the driver or an occupant of the vehicle decides to launch an attack against the officer. In that case, the position at the back of the patrol car will increase the options available to the officer. These options would not exist at the subject's vehicle behind the b-pillar, where time, distance and cover do not exist.

I will admit there are times when an officer can choose to run a subject's driver's license safely while at the subject's vehicle. For example, perhaps the officer sees something on the floorboard compelling enough to monitor while speaking with the driver, such as drugs or a weapon. While at the vehicle, the officer calls for a backing unit and discovers that backup is merely seconds away. Based on these circumstances, the officer may remain at the car and use sound officer safety tactics while maintaining visual observations of weapons or drugs.

As I mentioned earlier in the article, sometimes both sides of the debate have merit. It's not so much a case of deciding which is right and which is wrong, but instead developing a deeper understanding of the "why" behind any reasonable approach and then choosing which one works best at the time based on the circumstances of a particular situation. Train hard and be safe!

Police1 readers respond

  • As a dispatcher with 33+ years of service, IMO, the dangers of MDCs outweigh the pros (creating self-initiated activity). Plain and simple, they are a distraction to the officer’s safety. While they were an asset and helpful, times have changed and the officer safety issues we face today simply don’t justify their use. Dispatchers should be used to run everything needed. Issues surrounding that, such as lack of staffing, lack of untrained personnel and time it takes to get your returns, must be high priorities in the centers to contribute to officer safety.

  • I’m retired after 30 years of service. At night, I would open and close my unit door twice so as to give the impression that there were two officers. Regardless of night/day, after obtaining the DL, I would walk past the driver’s side of my unit (NEVER in between the cars) and around the rear. I’d open the front passenger door for cover/concealment and I’d run the info/write the cite near the right rear corner of my unit. I’d then walk around the rear of my unit again, along the driver’s side and approach the violator’s door to complete the stop. If he/she was going to jail, I wouldn’t approach until backup was with me.

  • We always run with two officers in every vehicle. Normally the police vehicle driver will engage with the suspect vehicle whilst his partner maintains watch from a 45-degree angle to the left rear of the suspect vehicle. The license is run on our mobile device and returned to the driver. — Western Australia police

  • I’m retired now but after 26 years on duty both street and as a detective, I made approaches in various ways depending on the stop I was conducting. I would retrieve the driver's info and return to my vehicle where I would run their info at the passenger door with the door open. This afforded me some cover and concealment, especially at night behind the spotlight and easy access to heavier weapons if the need arose.

  • Sometimes the circumstances of the traffic stop dictated where I ran the license. At my former agency backup was almost always available and since I taught the concept of contact and cover, my backup officer was the cover officer and depending on the totality of the circumstances, I might run the license from the driver's side of the vehicle or passenger side if I did an approach that way, but the majority of the time I did it from the passenger side rear of my patrol vehicle with the rear door open.

  • I prefer to stand at the A-pillar while facing the driver and passenger with my back toward the front of the vehicle, which also allows me to watch oncoming traffic. The most dangerous part of a traffic stop is the approach and the hands of the occupants. This allows me to watch the hands and only have to approach once.

  • Always make your initial approach on the passenger side of the offender vehicle, return to your vehicle for ID checks/paperwork and then return to the offender vehicle on the driver's side. Countless tactical advantages to this method.

  • I typically run the driver's license of a subject at the rear passenger bumper of my patrol car, for the same reasons cited by the author, even when I have a cover officer. Although I too see the merit in staying up front near the B-pillar of the subject's car. I think both tactics are sound, but I prefer to put distance and cover/concealment between the subject and me, for increased reaction time.
  • After 28 years of conducting traffic stops (now retired), I used all the above listed and then some. However, at night I would (sometimes), after getting the DL, walk back to my car passing the driver's side. I would walk around the trunk to the passenger side and open the passenger side front door. This is done for the illusion of maybe having another officer or me being in this location. I would walk into the property next to my car and stand by/behind fence posts, block walls, or any item that could be used as concealment/cover. It was neat to watch drivers exit their car and walk back to my car, confusion on their face and shock when they heard a voice coming from the dark. Another technique was to use my imaginary partner if I was having problems with the driver/occupants, I would tell my partner to watch the driver/occupants. I would see the driver/occupants start looking around for him. I would tell them to stop looking at my partner and pay attention to me. This seemed to work very well since they were more concerned about the unseen officer than me.

  • I run the driver's license either from my handheld portable radio at the B-pillar of my passenger side of my patrol vehicle, or from the MDT.

  • If it’s just a routine stop, in Canada, you have the option of running the car’s owner & driver’s license status before you even stop the car, and it can be run on NCIS (which covers Canada & the United States). You can ask your dispatcher to do a full run-up on the owner of the license plate. But, if it’s not the owner driving, then depending on where you are, and the status of backup, I would take the driver's information in hand and go back to the vehicle. Safety first. In Canada, we always try to run the vehicle’s plate before even stopping the vehicle, but that is not always the case.

What do you think? Share your comments and additional traffic stop safety tactics in the box below.

What is your approach for running a driver's license during a traffic stop?

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