Are Self-Driving Cars The End of Pre-textual Traffic Stops?

Americans love autonomy. This is, after all, the country of “Burger King: have it your way” and “You can keep your doctor.”  But the robots are coming. They’re coming to automate mundane things like laundry, finding a sandwich, and driving. Self-driving cars are already roaming the streets in San Francisco and other parts of the US.

An article in Ars Technica asks the question: what happens if the police have the ability to control self-driving cars? Instead of the cops chasing cars down with lights flashing and siren wailing, they could simply tell your car to pull itself over and stop, probably with a handy smartphone app (“it’s the Uber for cops pulling over cars!”).

Are self-driving cars the end of pretextual stops?

There are three reasons cops pull cars over:

  1. The cop thinks the driver committed a traffic infraction;
  2. The cop thinks the driver is suspicious or actively committing a crime;
  3. A combination of 1. and 2.

Self-driving cars will take away the little nit-picky traffic infractions cops use as initial justifications for traffic stops. Right now cops use the list of possible traffic infractions (following too closely, speeding, rolling stop, crossing the double-yellow line, accelerating too quickly, not using turn signals, the list goes on) in order to justify a traffic stop.

Here’s how this works: a cop sees a potential suspect driving and thinks they’re probably up to no good. But appearing to be up to no good isn’t a legal reason to pull over a car. So the cop waits for the driver to make an error, like not using their blinker to change lanes, and pulls them over. During the “investigatory traffic stop” the cop runs the driver’s and passenger’s licenses for outstanding warrants, and then either looks for a reason to search the car, or initiates a DUI investigation if they think the driver looks drunk or high. Sometimes the cop finds drugs in the car or arrests the driver for DUI. Sometimes the cop can’t find anything illegal going on and has to release the suspects with just a traffic ticket.

This is what’s called a “pretextual stop”- the officer is using a minor traffic infraction as the pretext for pulling the car over. If self-driving cars become the norm, maybe pretextual stops will become the exception.