Do Cops Still Touch the Back of Cars During Traffic Stops?

Seeing the flashing lights of a police car in your rearview mirror can be a heart-pounding endeavor. In the past, when a cop pulled someone over, they would touch the taillight or another part of the back of a car. This practice was done primarily for safety reasons as a routine part of traffic stops, as we detail below. However, do police officers still follow this practice? And if so, why do they do it?

Reasons why police officers touch the back of a car after pulling drivers over

Police officer by driver, highlighting why cops touch the back of cars during traffic stops
A car pulled over by the police | Jonathan Cooper via Unsplash

There are three reasons why cops touch the back of a car during a traffic stop:

  • Ensure that the trunk of a car is closed
  • Leave fingerprint evidence to show that the police officer was present at the scene
  • Startle drivers in possession of prohibited items

Police officers still follow the practice of touching the taillight or another part of the back of a car. However, advances in modern technology, such as dashboard cameras, make the practice somewhat unnecessary, particularly for the second and third reasons.

Ensure that the trunk of a car is closed

While a rare occurrence, there’s a possibility that someone could be hiding inside the trunk. They could jump out as the police officer approaches the vehicle. To avoid this problem, a cop touches the trunk to ensure that it is closed and properly latched. 

As reported by Click Orlando, Trooper Steve Montiero said, “When law enforcement officers conduct a traffic stop, there are plenty of procedures that need to be done, not only for the safety of the violator, but for the safety of that officer.” He continued, “The first reason is to make sure that the trunk is closed. It may sound a little crazy, but you want to make sure that no one is about to jump out of the trunk and that it’s properly secured.”

Leave fingerprint evidence to show that the cop was present at the scene

The second reason why cops touch the taillight or another part of the back of a car after pulling someone over is to leave fingerprint evidence. This evidence proves that they were at the scene. If there were ever a criminal investigation related to a driver and a police officer, the investigation could use fingerprints as evidence. Examples include investigations into a car accident or a shooting.

“Touching the rear of the vehicle puts the officer’s fingerprints on that car, showing that he or she was there with it,” said Trooper Montiero. “In case the driver decided to flee the scene, or if something happened to that officer, it ties both the vehicle and the officer together. This is just one of the many things that take place during traffic stops to ensure everyone’s safety.”

Police officers touch the back of cars to startle drivers in possession of prohibited items

Police car at traffic stop on snowy road, highlighting why cops touch the back of cars during traffic stops
A car pulled over by the police | Erik Mclean via Unsplash

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The third reason why police officers touch the taillight or another part of the back of cars during traffic stops is to startle drivers. During the traffic stop, cops face the risk of dangerous situations. This includes prohibited items, such as guns, ammunition, or illicit drugs. If a driver is in possession of prohibited items, they will likely want to hide them before the police officer approaches the window.

Touching the back of a car is one way to address this problem. The driver might not be expecting the tap. Therefore, when it happens, the cop will probably startle them. The driver will then pause for a moment. The momentary pause gives the police officer time to see if the driver is trying to hide anything. 

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As detailed by the Law Dictionary, this startling tactic has several proven benefits. This includes increasing the arrest of drunk drivers, sellers of illicit substances, people in possession of unlicensed firearms, and other road-related offenses. 

If you ever get pulled over by a police officer, you can expect a tap on the back of your car. Touching the taillight or another part of the back of a vehicle is not a random event. Cops do it for three reasons. This includes ensuring that the trunk is closed, leaving fingerprint evidence, and startling drivers in possession of prohibited items.

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