When Keyon Young was asked during a traffic stop one morning last month to step back to a deputy’s vehicle, he remained in his car out of confusion.
Young, 18, called his mother when Alachua County Sheriff’s Deputy Thomas Thueson pulled him over, telling her he had no idea why Thueson was asking him to get out of his car. His mother, Chanae Jackson-Baker, advised him to remain in his car with his hands on the steering wheel until she could find out what was going on from dispatch.
The sequence, captured in a dash-cam video since watched tens of thousands of times on the department’s Facebook page, followed with precision the policy of the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office.
For non-felony stops, the policy instructs deputies to call motorists back to the patrol car, unless “exigent circumstances clearly dictate” it’s safer to approach the driver’s car.
Young and his mother’s confusion arose because the sheriff’s office’s policy is an anomaly among most other law enforcement agencies in North Central Florida. And his unfamiliarity with the policy led him to ignore the deputy’s commands until he was pulled from the driver’s seat of his car while staring down a Taser and being put in handcuffs.
Exploring a divergence in policies
Nearly every law enforcement agency that conducts traffic stops in this part of the state has a policy that differs from its neighboring agencies. This means drivers can have different experiences depending on where they are pulled over and which agency makes the stop.
“We’ve been doing traffic stops like this for years,” Alachua County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. Brett Rhodenizer said. “In the almost 20 years that I’ve been with the office, this has been the manner we conduct traffic stops.”
The office’s jurisdiction overlaps with Gainesville Police Department. GPD leaves the decision of how to conduct the stop to each officer’s discretion.
“We didn’t want to limit the officers,” GPD spokesman Ben Tobias said. “We wanted to give them the discretion to be able to do what makes them feel safest and also provide the safest experience for the driver.
“Making an officer do something completely different may pull them out of a comfort zone and may escalate a situation that didn’t need to be escalated.”
Tobias said he understands that drivers may be confused about what is expected of them during traffic stops, and the officers take that into consideration. Still, to try to match protocol among neighboring agencies would be, he said, “an unrealistic expectation,” as it often differs around the state and country.
“We don’t expect it to be a test for the public.” – Sgt. Brett Rhodenizer, Alachua County Sheriff’s Office spokesman.
“We don’t expect it to be a test for the public,” Rhodenizer said. “We will walk you through it, and we do it dozens of times a day.”
In the dozen stops that Thueson made prior to pulling Keyon Young over on June 14, he asked drivers to exit with their license each time. Only once — on June 5, when he’d asked the driver to get out of his car five times, and the driver did not — did he approach.
Footage from his dashboard camera shows he did so with his hand atop his service weapon holster.
When Thueson got to the car window, he discovered the driver couldn’t hear his commands from the patrol car’s public address system because of noise from passing traffic on Interstate 75.
Where it’s up to each officer
The agencies that rely on the officer’s discretion do not compile data on how many prefer to approach drivers versus calling them out of the car.
Bradford County Sheriff’s Office’s policy is to encourage deputies to approach the driver’s car; it matches word for word the Putnam County policy.
“It’s really a case by case situation,” Maj. Brad Smith of Bradford County said. “Sometimes it’s just a gut feeling the officer has. Sometimes they might want them stationary in the vehicle, and sometimes they might want them outside the vehicle if there’s multiple subjects inside the vehicle who might be difficult to keep an eye on.”
Instructors at Florida’s 40 police academies teach a curriculum that includes three methods for conducting traffic stops:
- Approach the vehicle on the driver’s side;
- Approach the vehicle on the passenger’s side;
- “No approach” or calling the driver back to the patrol vehicle.
“There are benefits to both methods.” – Lt. Scott Tummond, Levy County Sheriff’s Office spokesman.
“All police academy recruits are taught exactly the same way in Florida,” said Thomas Ackerman, the director of Santa Fe College’s Institute of Public Safety. “What happens at the law enforcement agencies might be different.”
The “no approach” method is suggested when an officer doesn’t feel safe. The textbook also suggests the call-back method if the driver’s windows have a dark tint or if there are multiple passengers.
“There are benefits to both methods,” Lt. Scott Tummond of the Levy County Sheriff’s Office said. “It all has to do with location, atmosphere, and the climate (between police and the public) of the jurisdiction you live in.”
What a driver should know
The rights of officers and drivers during a traffic stop fall under the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“If an officer tells you or one of your passengers to get out, you have to do it.” – University of South Carolina professor Seth Stoughton.
“If an officer tells you or one of your passengers to get out, you have to do it,” said Seth Stoughton, a University of South Carolina professor who teaches courses on police law and policy.
The main precedent on the topic is the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1977 decision in Pennsylvania v. Mimms.
“The Supreme Court has said that those commands are reasonable exercises of government authority in the context of a traffic stop,” Stoughton said.
But drivers should know the difference between a police command and a police request. An officer can command a driver to show a license and registration and to step out of the car, but an officer cannot command a search of a driver’s vehicle without probable cause. If there is no probable cause, the officer must ask permission to search a vehicle (called a consent search).
The driver has the right to say no to a consent search.
“If he’s saying get out, get out,” Maj. Johnny Greenwood of Putnam County said. “If he’s saying stay in, stay in. It’s all about safety for the driver and for the officer.”
Drivers who don’t know whether they are being given a request or command can ask the officer to clarify.
The American Civil Liberties Union provides a printable sheet that outlines a driver’s rights when stopped by police.
An incomplete public education
Are young drivers likely to learn about the “no approach” policy?
Until June 13, Young had not: “Never. Ever.”
Sheriff Sadie Darnell said in a June 14 press conference with Jackson-Baker that her agency sends officers into Alachua County schools to teach it to students; the students who learn of it are those who take the district’s driver’s education course.
“We teach it in our classrooms,” said Scott Pritchett, coordinator of the school district’s Traffic Safety Center, “and we have the sheriff’s office come in and talk to the class.”
Pritchett said students are taught from the textbook to “wait in the car until the officer gives instruction, either to get out of the car or stay in. Keep your hands visible. Have your insurance ready.”
Alachua County students who don’t take driver’s education might not be aware of what a deputy will ask them to do.
Jackie Johnson, Alachua County school district spokeswoman, said it’s not part of the curriculum outside of driver’s education courses. In other words, schools don’t hold assemblies to show students the differences between agencies.
“Stay in the car unless the officer directs you.” – Charles Smith, Comedy Traffic School employee.
Adults taking driver’s education sometimes learn about it. Comedy Traffic School in Gainesville offers classes for people with traffic tickets or court-ordered classes, not those learning to drive for the first time.
“It’s not a curriculum thing, but it comes up in class,” said Charles Smith, who works for Comedy Traffic School. “People discuss it.”
“Everything I’ve ever been told is you don’t get out of the car,” Smith said. “Stay in the car unless the officer directs you.”
Smith said he gives this advice:
- Follow instructions.
- Be polite.
- Don’t get into an argument.
- Don’t do anything to make the officer nervous.
Keyon Young doesn’t fault Thueson for pulling him over for going 20 miles per hour over a school zone speed limit.
“I want to go out and admit that I was wrong,” Young said. “I don’t want to make any excuses for my actions. I was wrong. I was speeding.”
Young’s driver’s license remains suspended from previous traffic stops, though he’s working with a judge to have it reinstated.
He said he’s still unsure if he would react differently than he did during the stop a month ago.
“If you’re scared and you’re not recording or something, then my best judgment would be what I did in that moment… to call dispatch,” he said. “But apparently to them, that’s not the right thing to do.”
Update, Aug. 10, 2018: The traffic citations issued in June against Young have been dismissed. Judge Walter Green dismissed the traffic infractions and the $449 in fines and court costs associated with them.
Forrest Smith and Ethan Magoc contributed reporting.