Your palms are sweaty, your knees are weak and your arms are heavy. No, you’re not Eminem: it’s a Saturday night, you were driving home from meeting your friends – and you’ve just been stopped at a roadblock.

Even when you’ve done nothing wrong, being stopped by a traffic officer is enough to make most drivers feel nervous. The unfortunate reality is that we live in a country where traffic have a lot of power and a bad reputation, and most of us are scared of getting on the wrong side of the wrong traffic officer.
But what can you do when faced with a dodgy or aggressive traffic officer?
According to Carte Blanche, It’s important to remember that no matter the situation, every motorist has a list of rights that they’re entitled to exercise.

Types of roadblocks

There are two types of roadblocks in South Africa: informal roadblocks and K78 roadblocks. Informal roadblocks are mainly deployed to police drunk driving, speeding and unroadworthy vehicles, as well as outstanding fines. They are usually set up on major roads or highway off-ramps. K78 roadblocks have to be approved by the National Police Commissioner, are mostly used to catch a specific vehicle that has been connected to a major crime.

What traffic officers can and can’t do

Can a traffic officer search my vehicle?

In the case of informal roadblocks, if an officer wants to search your vehicle or person they have to provide you with a warrant. At K78 roadblocks, they must provide a copy of the authorisation letter from the National Police Commissioner – for this to be valid, it must provide the date, duration and purpose of the roadblock. If the officer is unable to produce the required documents, you have a legal right to prevent them from searching your car. However, it’s important to remember that traffic officers can perform a search without a warrant if they have reasonable grounds that they will have to prove in a court of law.

Can a traffic officer be out of uniform?

No, they are legally required to wear full uniform while working at a roadblock.

What can you be stopped for?

Traffic officers can pull you over for a number of reasons, including:

  • To perform a routine vehicle check
  • The officer witnessed the driver committing a traffic offense
  • The officer suspects that the vehicle is stolen, or involved in an illegal activity

What can a traffic officer do?

Traffic officers are allowed to do a number of things, depending on the type of roadblock.
At an informal roadblock, officers can:

  • Ask for your driver’s license or ID
  • Check outstanding fines
  • Check your vehicle’s license disk
  • Make sure the car is roadworthy

At a K78 roadblock, officers can:

  • Search any vehicle, without a warrant
  • Seize any possessions that they suspect are linked to a crime
  • Perform a body search, as long as it is performed by a member of the same sex. It is illegal for an officer of the opposite sex to search you.

What can a traffic officer do if they think you’ve been drinking?

If a traffic officer suspects that you have been driving under the influence of alcohol, they can request that you exit the vehicle and perform a breathalyser test. If your blood alcohol level is above the legal limit of 0.05g per 100 ml, you can be arrested. If you refuse to take a breathalyser test, they can legally detain you and take you to the nearest police station for a blood test.

Can traffic officers force me to pay outstanding fines?

No. The Constitution gives traffic officers no provision for paying fines on the spot unless the officer can provide you with a copy of the official warrant or summons. If the officer has a copy of an arrest warrant that has been issued in your name for those specific fines, you can be arrested. In that case, you need not get too worried, as you could always call your lawyer to guide you on what to do next. You don’t have to talk to the cops or answer any of their questions if you haven’t spoken to your lawyer first.

Can a traffic officer impound my car?

If your car is found to be unroadworthy by a traffic officer, they can legally prevent you from driving it further.
Related: Impound laws in South Africa

Can a traffic officer arrest me?

Yes. A traffic officer can arrest you, without a warrant, for the following offences:

  • Driving under the influence
  • Driving dangerously
  • Willfully obstructing a roadway
  • Driving with a cancelled license
  • They suspect you have or will commit a crime
  • Verbally or physically assaulting an officer.
  • Preventing an officer from doing their job

Can I film a traffic officer?

Yes. Police officers cannot prevent you from filming or photographing them at a roadblock, and they cannot confiscate, destroy, or force you to remove or delete footage or images.

What can I do if I don’t feel safe?

If you or your passengers feel unsafe pulling over for a roadblock, there are a number of things you can do:

  • If you’re concerned that the traffic officer or roadblock is not actually an officer of the law, you can dial 10111.
  • Inform them of the situation, provide them with as many details about the suspects as you can, including any vehicle registration numbers to verify whether they’re actually traffic officers or not.
  • If you’re at a roadblock, ask the officer for his or her badge number. You can also ask for their identity card or the appointment certificate.
  • If you’re being followed by a police car and you can’t get through to the 10111 call centre, you can switch on your hazards and drive slowly (40 km/h) to the nearest police or petrol station with people nearby and CCTV cameras capturing the interaction.

How do I report a traffic officer?

You can call 10111 or report them to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID).
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