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1 simple strategy for dealing with a driver who refuses to give you their license

Officers trained in this method indicate they achieve a high level of compliance in a short period of time


In order to understand the situation, you have to realize the overriding issue at hand is control.


What do you do when a driver refuses to give you their license during a traffic stop?

A variety of dash cam and cellphone videos posted on the internet show officers handling such refusals with varying levels of success. All too often we see car windows smashed and the driver dragged out by force. While the force and arrest may be legal, there is an easier way to achieve a safer outcome.

Trooper Kirk Hensley and members of the North Carolina State Patrol employ a strategy I have also used over the years.

Understand what is at stake

In order to understand the situation, you have to realize the overriding issue at hand is control.

The control begins with you. You take control the moment you turn on your lights and the driver pulls over. Your demeanor and word choice play a large part in determining the outcome of the stop. Polite professionalism should be your goal on all interactions unless or until the situation dictates another approach.

By mentally rehearsing and role-playing your response to a non-cooperative driver, you gain control by having a practiced response. The alternative is trying to develop a plan while under stress, which often leads to poor outcomes.

The driver may attempt to wrestle your control away by not cooperating, hoping to send you into a tail spin of poor choices and actions that will make them look like victims and you look like the aggressor.

Their refusal may include a demand for you to summon your supervisor. Again, this attempts to take away your control by suggesting you don’t have the ability, knowledge or authority to do what you are doing. This request can have a negative effect on officer demeanor. No officer likes the implication that they don’t know how to do their job. All too often when this request is made some officers become visibly agitated. The driver has now gained control because their actions have evoked a change in behavior and emotion in the officer.

Understanding this battle for control enables you to devise an appropriate response.

Your response to a refusal

When the driver refuses to provide the necessary documents or a full name and date of birth so you can run your checks, you can create the illusion the driver is in control. Do that by explaining you are required to obtain those documents. You then tell them you are going to go back to your squad car and, when they are ready, they can provide the requested information.

Return to your car and notify dispatch of the situation and request backup. The driver will realize the only thing keeping them on scene is their actions. In other words, they are in control of how long the stop takes. Officers trained in this method indicate they achieve a high level of compliance in a short period of time.

Note that backup is requested in case the strategy fails and you need to take the next step to get the driver to comply.

How a driver may respond

At this point, the driver can respond in several ways.

If they exit the vehicle, watch carefully to see if they have their documents in hand. If they do, you can make the decision as to whether you request they get back into their vehicle and approach them again, or direct them to the front of your squad where you can continue with the stop.

If the driver motions you up indicating they have the documents, you have the same two options, each has their advantages and disadvantages.

If the driver decides to drive off, you now have a pursuit and your policies will dictate how that is handled.

If the driver gets out without the documents in hand, you have to make a decision as to their intent. You can direct them to get back into their car and meet them as already discussed, or you have the option of putting your car into reverse and creating distance if the situation requires.

Remember, on every stop you have the P, D or R choice:

  • Park and deal with the situation;
  • Drive out or around the situation;
  • Reverse and create distance.

Too often we get locked into parking since it is our most used strategy.

Note: If you work in an area where backup may take time to get there and this approach doesn’t work, you will have to ascertain if it is better to wait for backup or attempt to take the driver out of the car yourself. Trying to extricate a driver next to a roadway presents all kinds of obvious hazards. Remember, when you work by yourself and no backup is available, you have the option of breaking contact with the driver and waiting for another day when the odds are in your favor.

To paraphrase Sun Tzu, the greatest warrior wins the battle without having to fight. By having this strategy ready to deploy, you take away the resistant driver’s control without them even realizing.

In February 2014, Duane Wolfe retired from his career as a Minnesota Peace Officer after more than 25 years of service (beginning in 1988). During his career, he served as a patrolman, sergeant, S.R.T., use of force and firearms instructor. He was a full-time law enforcement instructor at Alexandria Technical & Community College in Alexandria, Minnesota for 28 years. Duane has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Criminal Justice from Bemidji State University and a Masters Degree in Education from Southwest State University.