Traffic Stops and What You Can Do About Them

Protecting your rights during a traffic stop- the basics. Let’s face it: getting pulled over is never fun. A traffic stop can be a nerve-wracking experience for anyone, but there are certain things that you can do to promote your safety and to protect your rights. Chad West, PLLC has the following tips for successfully navigating one of these encounters with the police:

  • When you see the officer’s lights flashing or you hear the siren, slow your vehicle down and pull over to the right side of the road when it is safe to do so. Use your turn signal to indicate your intention of pulling over.
  • Roll down your window completely and place your hands on the steering wheel. If it’s nighttime, turn on an interior light. Don’t do anything else until the officer is at your window.
  • Be polite and respectful at all times: there’s nothing to be gained by being rude, sarcastic, angry, or disrespectful.
  • Wait for the officer to speak first. If he or she asks, “Do you know why I pulled you over?” simply say, “No” and wait for further information from the officer.
  • If the officer asks, hand him or her your driver’s license and proof of insurance without protest.
  • If the officer writes you a ticket, accept it without arguing.
  • When the officer has made it clear that you are free to go, drive away slowly and safely after he or she is a safe distance from your vehicle.

Those tips apply best during an “ideal” traffic stop (if there is such a thing!) But there are many things that might come up during a traffic stop, and it’s good to be prepared for them.

Here are some questions that we are frequently asked:

Q: Should I get out of the car?

A: Do not get out of the car unless the officer asks you to. If he or she does ask, exit your vehicle at once, but without making any quick or sudden movements. Police officers do have the right to ask both drivers and passengers to get out of the car; this is to protect their safety.

Q: Is the officer automatically allowed to search me when I get out of the car?

A: If you have been pulled over, the officer has a right to perform a “pat down” frisk only if he has a “reasonable suspicion” that you are armed or dangerous. However, if the officer asks for your permission to frisk you, refuse clearly and unequivocally: we like the phrase “I do not consent to any searches or seizures.” If you are frisked by the police during a routine traffic stop, call us to see if your rights have been violated.

Q: Is the officer automatically allowed to search my car?

A: Generally, no. However, there are certain circumstances in which officers have the right to search your vehicle. If the officer has “probable cause” to believe that your vehicle contains evidence of criminal activity, he or she has the right to search your car. For example, if the officer smells marijuana in your car, he or she will almost always have probable cause to search your car. As with searches of your body, if the officer asks for your permission to search your vehicle, refuse clearly and unequivocally: “I do not consent to any searches or seizures.”

Q: How long can the officer keep me on the side of the road?

A: It depends on the circumstances. The U.S. Supreme Court has said that during a traffic stop the officer is required to “diligently pursue a means of investigation that [is] likely to confirm or dispel [his] suspicions quickly.” If you have been stopped for longer than an hour, ask the officer if you are free to go. If he or she says no, contact us right away.

Q: Is the officer allowed to question me?

A: The officer is allowed to ask certain questions to establish your identity and your proof of insurance. Other than those limited areas, the officer does not generally have the right to ask questions. Do not answer any questions the officer asks you about where you are coming from, where you are going to, what you’ve had to eat, what you’ve had to drink, how much you’ve had to drink, whether or not you feel safe to drive, when you started drinking, and when you stopped drinking. There is no correct way for you to answer these questions. Remember, the officer is not asking you these questions to determine whether or not you are intoxicated and to let you go – he’s asking these questions to use against you at trial. When the officer begins to question you, simply say, “I’d like to have my lawyer present with me before I answer any questions.”

Q: If the officer suspects that I have been drinking, do I have to do the field sobriety tests?

A: Do not agree to perform any field sobriety tests. The officer has a uniform, a gun, and is in a position of authority on the side of the road, but he can’t compel you to perform field sobriety tests if you don’t want to do them. If the officer asks you to perform the field sobriety tests, simply tell him, “I’d like to have my lawyer present and I don’t want to do any tests.”

Q: What if I’m pulled over by an unmarked car?

A: If you are pulled over by an unmarked car, you may ask the officer to show you his or her badge and photo ID. You can also ask to follow the officer to the nearest police station to conduct the stop there. Be aware that this may irritate him or her, but it is definitely better to be safe than sorry.

Q: What should I do if I am concerned or frightened by an officer’s behavior?

A: As always, be polite and stay calm. If you can, discreetly record the interaction. For example, use your phone to record audio or video by placing it on the dashboard or in a compartment on your door. You can also request that the officer call a supervisor to the scene.

Remember the basics:

  • Be polite and remain calm at all times.
  • Never give your consent if the officer asks permission to search you or your car.
  • Call us right away if you feel like something was “off” about a traffic stop.

Authored by Katherine Blakley and Jonathan Michell


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