ON THE BEAT: Reedley PD talks traffic stops at Police Academy

Reedley patrol officers explain the finer points of traffic stops at the second Reedley Police Community Academy meeting

(Darren Fraser)
(Darren Fraser)
Darren Fraser
Published May 10, 2024  • 
9:00 am

REEDLEY – The next time you drive down G Street in Reedley and you spot an open parking spot opposite you, consider this before you pull that U-turn: you are breaking three traffic laws and, if cited, could be facing $500 or more in fines.

This is the warning Sergeant Todd Lowery issued to Reedley Police Community Academy members at the second Academy meeting on May 8 in the Reedley City Council chambers.

“It’s what I call the Reedley admin felony,” Lowery said.

Lowery, a 33-year veteran with the Reedley Police Department (RPD) with over 20 years with the traffic division, said the three violations are: failure to obey a posted sign; making a U-turn in a business district; and making a U-turn over a double yellow line.

This lesson fell in theme with the second meeting of the Reedley Police Community Academy, which focused on traffic stops and how RPD patrol officers do their job. For this meeting, Lowery was joined by Detective Victor Perez, Officer Edgar Armenta, Officer Marisela Delgado and Officer Javier Jaurique. The five explained that pulling over a vehicle for a routine traffic stop is anything but routine.

Perez said every officer handles a traffic stop differently, but he stressed that while methodologies may differ, every officer – in Reedley and elsewhere – is on high alert from the moment they turn on their lights and instruct the driver to pull over. This is because traffic stops are not random. Traffic stops follow a traffic violation or are connected to a criminal investigation.

“RPD officers will only stop you if they have reasonable suspicion or probable cause that a crime has been committed, is being committed or is going to be committed,” said Perez.

Officer Armenta listed the main reasons for traffic stops, with cell phone use topping the list. There’s also: Not wearing a seat belt, suspect window tinting, expired registration, and tailgating and unsafe lane changes, broken tail lights or headlights, impeding traffic (driving too slowly), front or rear license plate missing, or the vehicle matching the description of a vehicle used in a crime.

Sergeant Lowery, who is on the cusp of retirement, advised motorists to get over their annoyance of being pulled over for the sole reason of their vehicle matching the description of a vehicle that was used in a crime.

“We’ll figure it out. I know it’s scary, having guns pointed at you, but then and there is not the time to argue with us,” he said.

He added, “People say, ‘Oh, you’re just pulling me over because I’m Mexican.’ I answer, ‘No, we’re pulling you over because you’re in a white Honda and we just had a shooting (involving a white Honda) and you’re driving a white Honda. This is not time for dialog.’”

Officer Jaurique next ran through what motorists should do if they are pulled over. Most responses fall under the category of common sense, including producing your license and registration and showing proof of insurance. Also, motorists should remain inside their vehicles unless instructed to step out.

Lowery said one reaction that should be avoided is raising your hands to the roof.

“When we see that, that tells us you’ve been through this process before,” he said. “That’s a red flag for us. Makes us think, ‘Okay, who’s in that vehicle?’”

Regarding individuals with concealed carry weapon (CCW) permits, Lowery advised motorists to inform the officer as soon as possible.

“When they tell me they have a CCW, I answer, ‘You don’t pull yours (gun) and I won’t pull mine’,” he said.

IN THE FIELD

The class moved outside to receive hands-on training for making a traffic stop. Officer Delgado took half the class; Detective Perez took the other half.

Officer Marisela Delgado giving members of the Reedley Police Community Academy hands-on training for making a traffic stop. (Darren Fraser)

Delgado drives the familiar Ford Enforcer SUV most police departments use. She said there are nuances involved in nearly every stage of making a traffic stop. As an example, she pointed out how she deploys her spotlight.

“I shine it through the rear windshield,” she said. “It’s not just about lighting. It tells me who is in the vehicle.”

When pulling over a suspected drunk driver, she said approaching the vehicle from the driver’s side is recommended.

“When the driver rolls down the window, I’m able to smell the alcohol,” she said.

Delgado and Perez explained why an officer will remain in their vehicle for a prolonged period of time after pulling over a driver. “We’re finding out everything we can about you before we approach,” said Perez.

As a detective, Perez himself drives an unmarked vehicle. “Just a Dodge with a lights package and a siren,” he said.

Same as Delgado, Perez walked his cohort of Academy members through the basics, including why he positions his vehicle’s tires in a particular direction – pointing to the left.

“If he (the motorist) takes off, I’m hopping back into my car and taking off. This way, I’m in position,” said Perez.

He then described the “dead zone,” which is the space between the motorist’s rear bumper and his cruiser’s front bumper. “Never walk in the dead zone,” he cautioned.

Perez then explained the difference between a traffic stop and a felony stop.

“When we roll up on a vehicle and the plates don’t match or we have information the vehicle was used in a crime, that dramatically changes how we approach the car,” he said. At that point, he said, guns are drawn and the officers take up defensive positions behind the doors of the cruiser. Delgado concurred.

“When we get a report of a stolen vehicle, all units swarm, guns out,” she said.

DRIVING UNDER THE INFLUENCE

The remainder of the class was devoted to a discussion on drunk driving. Jaurique recited the alarming statistics:

  • In 2023, there were more than 200,000 DUI-related crashes;
  • 280,000 people injured; 4,000 killed;
  • Over 340 DUI arrests in California every day; and
  • Over 125,000 DUI arrests in California in 2023.

The nationwide statistics are more disturbing, with two standing out. In 2023, 25% of all traffic fatalities were caused by DUI and over 10,000 in the U.S. die each year because of DUI.

Lowery said that RPD officers look for behavior patterns when following a suspected drunk driver. He said these behavior patterns apply equally to someone under the influence of drugs, including marijuana.

“These drivers rarely make a normal turn,” he said. “Instead, they typically make a looping turn.”

RPD began wearing body cameras about two years ago. The technology has been particularly helpful with respect to DUI cases. But officers continue to administer field sobriety tests (FST) because lawyers who specialize in DUI cases have been adept at finding holes in an officer’s arrest report.

“Before body cams, you’d have attorney’s grilling officers on the stand about where, exactly, did their client place his finger during the FST. Was it directly on the tip of the nose or to the left or right?,” said Lowery.

And while body camera footage has significantly cut down on possible inconsistencies involved in DUI arrest reports, Lowery said he trains new officers to be exacting to the point of being obsessive when filling out reports. He cited the example of an officer who, when asked how far he could see when it’s dark, replied, “Pretty far. When the moon is out. What’s that? 93 million miles?”

The judge was not amused and dismissed the case.

Lowery and Jaurigue concluded the class by reviewing changes in state law regarding DUI arrests. Starting this year, anyone arrested of DUI must complete a licensed treatment program which lasts at least three months. This is in addition to other penalties. Anyone convicted of DUI must have an interlock ignition device (IID) – a breathalyzer – installed on their vehicle. Anyone caught without the device will be charged with a misdemeanor and is subject to arrest. 

Darren Fraser
Reporter