As a driver, there's a strong chance that law enforcement will pull you over at least once in your life. Even if you generally drive safely, you could still run into police at a checkpoint or speed trap.
Traffic stops often involve minor violations such as speeding or running a red light. However, every encounter with police is a potential criminal law matter. Drivers and their passengers should understand how to navigate this situation, including how to use the right against unlawful search and seizure.
Why Police Officers Pull Over Drivers
Police generally pull over drivers when they witness a traffic violation. The reason for the stop could involve either a moving or non-moving violation.
Common reasons for a traffic stop include:
- Erratic maneuvers that suggest driving under the influence (DUI)
- Speeding in a school zone or construction zone
- A vehicle issue like a broken tail light or expired registration
- Improper turns or lane changes
- Cell phone use and other forms of distracted driving
Police might also stop a driver due to reasonable suspicion, which means they have reason to believe that a driver or passenger could be involved in criminal activity. Sometimes, law enforcement sets up a drunk driving checkpoint to stop motorists regardless of their actions on the road.
What Happens at a Traffic Stop?
If you hear the siren and see flashing lights, pull over safely and promptly. Use your signal and move to the shoulder as far as you can.
Stay in the car unless the officer asks you to leave the vehicle. If you exit the vehicle without the officer's instructions, they may think you are getting ready to flee or fight. If they ask you to leave your car, do so calmly and carefully.
Here are a few things you might expect at a routine traffic stop:
- The police officer may ask to see your driver's license and registration
- The officer may ask whether you know the reason for the stop
- The officer may ask to search your vehicle
- The officer may test you for intoxicated driving
- The officer may conduct a pat-down for a weapon or suspicious objects
- You might receive a warning or traffic ticket for the violation
The events leading up to a traffic stop can affect what happens next. For example, if you are swerving between lanes, law enforcement may be more likely to test you for alcohol.
Some traffic stops can end in an arrest. Criminal charges, such as a DUI, may be at stake. That's why it's wise to protect yourself while staying polite when pulled over. If you are arrested at a traffic stop, you may want to call a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.
Know Your Rights as a Driver or Passenger
Traffic stops can be scary. Even if police stop you for a minor traffic violation like speeding, what you say and do can carry high legal stakes. It is common to feel nervous or defensive, but acting under emotions can make it difficult to protect yourself.
It can be helpful to learn about your rights and obligations ahead of time, such as:
Understanding your constitutional rights during police interrogation and vehicle searches can help you prevent the traffic stop from escalating. It is often best to let the officer do most of the talking. Staying silent when possible can help you avoid incriminating yourself.
A police officer needs a valid reason to search a vehicle, or they need the driver's permission. You don't have to let police search your car without a search warrant.
However, the officer might detect potential signs of a crime, which gives them probable cause. Probable cause legally allows them to search your car without a warrant. If you are arrested, police can impound your vehicle. They can then conduct an inventory search of its contents without any other proof of wrongdoing.
Drivers have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their car, but the police could still notice a problem from outside of your vehicle. For example, you might get in trouble if you have contraband in plain view, such as an open beer can in the cup holder. They may also question you if they see you put something in the glove compartment or the back seat.
Get Legal Help
If you think you were the subject of an officer's unlawful search, stay calm. Police can't use evidence of a crime against you if you prove they found the evidence in an illegal search or at an unlawful traffic stop. You can challenge an unreasonable search in court later with the help of a criminal defense lawyer. Put the expertise of a skilled attorney to work for you.