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Top 3 Legal Questions for Handling a Traffic Stop

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. on May 31, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Traffic stops are quite common and every driver needs to know how to handle them well. Even if you did not do anything wrong, you can end up with a criminal charge if your encounter with police goes awry. And your encounter will go awry if you give police officers a hard time.

Yes, it's true that you have rights and that the police work for you. But these authority figures do have reason to be wary when pulling people over, as they do face dangers. Make it easy for them to be cool by playing it cool. Also, know what an officer can and cannot do. Here are some questions that you may have when you're pulled over and the answers you need to handle a traffic stop appropriately.

1. How Long Is Too Long for a Traffic Stop?

If you've been pulled over, every minute that passes may feel like an hour. But try to be patient anyway. The Supreme Court has never specified what amount of time precisely is appropriate for a traffic stop and when one has gone on so long that it becomes unreasonable. An officer must investigate or issue a ticket within a "reasonable" amount of time. What that means precisely will depend on the situation.

2. Civil Rights During a Traffic Stop: 5 Reminders

You do not have to consent to a search of your vehicle although an officer can still search if the police have reasonable suspicion of criminality. Be explicit but polite about the fact that you oppose the search, so that you can preserve your right to challenge it in court, and feel free to film the encounter. It's never in your interest to upset the police but if you know your rights, you can be both insistent and polite.

3. When Can Police Conduct a Strip Search?

The basis for a search of any kind is a reasonable suspicion in the area police seek to search. If the thing police seek to search is your body, then there must be a reasonable suspicion that there is something hidden in or on your body. What is reasonable is widely debated in case law and ultimately will depend on the details of your case. Again, you do not have to consent but a search may still happen.

Talk to a Lawyer

If you are issued a ticket or criminally charged on the basis of a traffic stop, talk to a lawyer. Many criminal defense attorneys consult for free or a minimal fee and will be happy to assess your case.

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