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Civil Rights During a Traffic Stop: 5 Reminders

Patrol officer stands at window of luxury car
By Brett Snider, Esq. | Last updated on

Your civil rights may seem like just a concept until they're put to the test. Perhaps the most common situation in which Americans reach for their rights is during a traffic stop.

But what exactly are your civil rights during a traffic stop?

Consider this a civil rights cheat sheet of sorts. Here are five things you should remember about your civil rights during a traffic stop:

Police will often ask drivers and passengers who have been stopped for a traffic offense if they can search the vehicle. But without a warrant or probable cause, you do not have to consent to that search.

Law enforcement officers generally need a warrant or probable cause to search your vehicle, unless you give the officers your consent. Officers do not have to inform you that you have the right to say "no."

If you don't want to allow police to search your vehicle, be unequivocal and direct (but not rude or antagonistic); tell the officers that you will not consent to a search of the vehicle.

2. You Have the Right to Film/Record a Traffic Stop.

Although police officers may be recording the traffic stop with their dash cam, you have the First Amendment right to film an officer during a traffic stop.

Remember, you have the right to film, but this doesn't mean you can stall or interfere with an officer conducting his investigation. Shoving a camera or an iPhone in a cop's face may be enough to get you arrested for obstructing an officer.

If officers confiscate your phone or camera, or if they arrest you for recording your traffic stop, then it's probably time to get a criminal defense lawyer on your side.

3. Your Detention Must Be Reasonable in Length.

Pulling a vehicle over and detaining a vehicle on reasonable suspicion that the driver committed a traffic offense is entirely legal, but an officer cannot detain you indefinitely.

There is no magic number for how long is too long to be held for a traffic stop; often cops will detain drivers while running records checks on their license plates and IDs. But if it has been about 30 minutes since you were stopped, feel free to start your recording and ask the officer why you're still being detained.

4. You Can Decline to Answer Police Questions.

Whether you are detained on foot or in a car, you have the right to decline to answer police questions -- even the classic interrogatory, "Do you know why I pulled you over today?"

Practically, it would behoove you to cooperate with the police during a routine traffic stop (i.e., giving them your license and registration and remaining in your car without resisting). But you are under no obligation to answer police questions, especially ones unrelated to the traffic stop (e.g., "Where are you headed?" or "You have anything illegal in the car?").

5. You Can Request and Record Officer Information.

If you have any worries or complaints that your civil rights were violated during a traffic stop, you will need to know which officers were responsible for allegedly violating your rights.

You can always ask a police officer for her badge number during a traffic stop. Uniformed officers in states like California are required to display their badge numbers on their nameplate or badge.

Remember, your civil rights protect you even during a mundane traffic stop, and exercising them politely and calmly, without antagonizing officers, will never be to your detriment.

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