What it Means When an Officer Taps Your Taillight in a Traffic Stop

Police Pulling Car Over

If you’ve ever wondered why police officers tap your taillight when they pull you over, then this article is for you. Keep reading to find out the reasons why. HINT: It’s not because they’re playing a game of tag.

Why Police Officers Tap Your Taillight When They Pull You Over

Source: Pixabay

If you have ever noticed a police officer tap on your taillight after pulling you over, you are not alone. Perhaps you’ve even wondered why they did it. Well, the reasons just may surprise you. One reason is that they do it is to leave behind evidence, namely their fingerprints. When stopping a car, an officer needs to prove that he or she actually approached the vehicle. By tapping the taillight, they are able to leave physical proof of what happened. Years ago, those fingerprints would have been used if the case went to trial. This made it easier for the officer to testify to things he or she noticed while approaching the car. Also, before there were dash cams and body cameras, the fingerprints helped fellow officers track down missing members of the force in the event that something happened to them during the traffic stop.

Another reason they do it is to help identify the car if the driver flees the scene.

A third reason they do it is to startle the driver, or anyone else in the car for that matter, who may be intoxicated or in possession of drugs, guns and other illicit goods. “It’s not uncommon for people to try and hide their illicit drugs or guns right after they are pulled over by a cop. Tapping the taillight has the benefit of startling these criminals before they can finish hiding their stash of ill-gotten goods,” Marilyn Caylor of Lifeaspire says, according to The Popple.

Lastly, police officers tap your taillight to make sure the trunk is closed. So, technically, then, they really aren’t even touching the taillight at all. They’re actually touching the trunk in case someone is hiding inside waiting to attack them. “We do this because we do not yet know exactly what we are dealing with. What if the subject just committed armed robbery? Many an officer has been ambushed by an armed assailant waiting in the trunk with a shotgun in case their vehicle is pulled over after fleeing the scene. By pushing on your trunk we just locked the assailant in,” Tommy MacIrish, a police officer in Chicago, said on Quora.

Officers Don’t Do it That Often Today

Time For Other Ways
Source: Pixabay

As we mentioned before, dash cams and body cams make this practice obsolete today. Not only that, but touching a taillight during a traffic stop can actually put an officer in a dangerous situation. First, it can pose as a distraction for the officer, making them vulnerable to sneak attacks. It also makes it easier for criminals to spot officers and open fire, especially at night. That’s why many agencies discourage officers from doing this nowadays. Still, there are officers who continue to follow the practice anyway–either out of habit or out of tradition.

Other Ways in Use Today

Another Way
Source: Pixabay

CarbonPrevails a Reddit user who is also a police officer said, “I don’t touch the taillight but I do lightly tap the rear passenger side door three times in quick succession just before my partner approaches the front driver’s side window of the vehicle. This is done so the driver turns their head towards the passenger side of the car and give the contact officer a small window with the driver distracted. It’s surprisingly effective.”

2sioux2bsioux, another police officer on Reddit, said they don’t even touch the back of the car at all: “I tend not to even go to the driver’s side and I don’t want to announce my presence by getting so close to the car you spot light yourself with your lights. I’ve walked into the ditch and just watched someone for a minute or two… they tried to hide drugs while I watched them with the driver staring at his mirrors looking for me.” This officer isn’t the only one doesn’t go to the driver’s side. In fact, J.T. Cantrell Sr., a former police officer, firefighter and paramedic, said on Quora that passenger side approaches are becoming more common–and for good reason. It has always been standard practice for officers to approach the driver’s side of the vehicle after pulling someone over. But, that practice actually endangers the life of the police officer. According to POLICE Magazine, the driver side approach has resulted in numerous injuries and deaths of law enforcement officials from the occupants of the vehicle they pulled over as well as from oncoming traffic. The passenger side approach, however, allows officers to take drivers by surprise since most have been conditioned to expect officers to approach on the driver’s side, gives officers more room to maneuver, gives officers an unobstructed view of the interior of the passenger compartment, allows officers to receive paperwork from the driver more easily, allows officers to position themselves in a face-on position toward the passenger side doorframe, gives right-handed officers a view into the passenger side window with gun side ready for a quick response, and keeps them from having to worry about oncoming traffic if they need to move left or right, back up or drop to the ground if the occupant(s) of the car begin firing. Plus, the passenger side door and passenger side of the vehicle offer cover.

Meanwhile, Peri Collins, a former police officer and attorney, said on Quora that she has “never deliberately stuck my prints on a vehicle, and I made a lot of traffic stops while on patrol–literally thousands of stops. I typically wore at least thin leather gloves as soon as the weather was cool enough that the gloves didn’t make my hands perspire. I didn’t want to touch anyone’s dusty car, dirty hands, etc. A latent print is not going to be easily lifted from a car that has even a light layer of dust on it. If it is really dirty, forget about it. The license was already run and a warrant check done on the registered owners before we hit the lights to initiate a stop most of the time where I worked, so there was no logical need to stick a fingerprint on a taillight.”


For related tips, check out this article showing you how to beat a speeding ticket. Thanks for reading!