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Do I Have to Get Out of My Vehicle During a Traffic Stop?

The short answer is probably yes.  

If you are stopped for a traffic violation, it might seem unnecessary for you to get out of the vehicle.  Indeed, it may be necessary, but it is within the authority of the officer to order you out of the vehicle.  Failure to obey that lawful order can result in your being arrested for Obstruction of an Officer, a misdemeanor which carries up to 12 months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

This issue was answered on federal constitutional grounds by the United States Supreme Court in the case of Pennsylvania v. Mimms in 1977. A driver was stopped for expired tag.  The stop of the driver was not in dispute.  During the stop, an officer ordered Mimms to step out of the vehicle. This order was based on a policy of that department to have everyone stopped in a vehicle to exit the vehicle. This policy was apparently based on a concern about the "inordinate risks" related to confronting a person seated in an automobile.  

The Supreme Court accepted this argument as well as one that it was safer for both the officer and the driver to be standing between the parked vehicles than to have the officer standing beside the parked vehicle.  They found that it was a reasonable step for the officer to take and not in conflict with the Fourth Amendment. 

The justification is interesting given modern practice and jurisprudence.

I have watched quite a few videos where officers react strongly if a driver or passenger attempts to get out of the stopped vehicle.  The Supreme Court also ignored the obvious solution to the officer safety concern which is to approach the stopped vehicle on the passenger side.  

Justice Marshall dissented from the decision, noting that the Court had ignored its own precedent that the extent of the later action is set by the circumstances which led to the initial stop.  In the case, the Court did not relate the propriety of the seizure of the person to step out of the vehicle to the reason for the initial stop.  Instead, the Court balanced the imposition on the vehicle occupant, which it judged to be minimal, against the concerns for the officer.  

It is worth noting that some state courts have rejected the Mimms decision on state constitutional grounds.  Those include Massachusetts, Vermont and Hawaii.  Washington state rejected it for its application to passengers.  The Vermont Supreme Court noted the many legitimate reasons that a person might object to being required to exit a vehicle:  a woman fearing for her personal safety, a person in poor health reluctant to stand in cold or rain, a person not fully dressed, and an elderly driver.  These courts have required some specific reason for the officer to justify an exit order.  

Georgia has not clearly confronted the issue, although there are hundreds of cases where the order to the driver or passenger to exit the vehicle goes unremarked on.  In Edgell v. State (2002), the decision of a passenger to exit the vehicle and walk away was deemed permissible and not subject to police intervention in the absence of specific reasons to detain the person.  In that case, the Georgia Court of Appeals noted:

An individual's rights under the Fourth Amendment are not automatically waived, however, simply because he or she is asked to step out of a vehicle. The safety of officers is of extreme importance to this Court. Nonetheless, our constitution requires an officer to provide evidence to show that an act alleged to be performed for his safety was actually performed for that purpose in conformance with the requisite standards of Terry. Without appropriate evidence that the “officer ... had a reasonable basis for concluding that [the suspect subject to the search] was armed or was otherwise a threat to his personal safety,” Newton, supra, the intrusive search of the type in this case is unconstitutional.

So, that court recognized the concern that exists but applied it only to the subsequent search of the person not the actual decision of the officer to order the passenger out of the vehicle.  

There may be some possibility that a Georgia court confronted squarely with the issue could decide that the Georgia Constitution provides more protection that the federal constitution.  However, at this point, a person ordered to exit the vehicle who does not do so risks an arrest and an additional charge.  Then, if you want to challenge the state constitutionality of the charge  and the officer's order, it will be a long, hard fight.

Sean A. Black

Sean A. Black is a 1992 graduate of the Emory University School of Law. He has been in private practice in Toccoa, Georgia since June 1, 1992.

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