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Getting Pulled Over

Getting pulled over by law enforcement is intimidating and stressful. How you react and handle yourself during a traffic stop matters and can impact the outcome of the stop.

FindLaw's Getting Pulled Over section has information on several aspects of traffic stops. Learn more about:

  • What to do and not to do when pulled over by law enforcement
  • The legality of police roadblocks and sobriety checkpoints
  • Laws and regulations for traffic stops
  • How to avoid self-incrimination
  • Your rights during traffic stops and vehicle searches

Read on to learn about the basics of getting pulled over by the police. The links at the end of the article go more in-depth about specific topics related to traffic stops.

How To Handle a Traffic Stop

Being pulled over can be stressful because it's difficult to know what to expect. Most stops are routine and used to enforce minor traffic infractions, like illegal lane changes or running a red light. Whatever the reason, how you handle a traffic stop may help you receive minimal penalties.

If you are pulled over, stay calm and remember the following:

  • Pull over to the side of the road as quickly and safely as possible once you see the flashing lights or white spotlight of a police car.
  • Sometimes, pulling over safely means you have to get off the freeway or drive a short distance to a side street, parking lot, or other safe spot. If this is the case, use your vehicle's flashers to make it clear you intend to pull over.
  • It may take several minutes for the officer to leave their patrol car and approach your vehicle. They are likely running your license plates and dispatching their station to inform them of the stop. Use this time to collect your thoughts and prepare for the interaction.
  • Before the officer approaches, roll down the window, turn off the engine, turn on your interior lights, and put your hands on the steering wheel. These actions allow the officer to feel confident that you won't drive away and don't have a weapon.
  • Do not reach for anything until the officer asks for your driver's license, proof of insurance, and vehicle registration. Before you grab anything, say something like “I am going to get my documents from my glove box."
  • Do not get out of the car unless the officer asks you to.
  • Be compliant and polite during your interaction with the officer. While you might feel angry or wronged, being rude and aggressive will only irritate the officer.
  • While you should be cooperative, you do not want to say anything that can be used against you. It's best to give noncommittal responses and not admit to guilt. If you decide to challenge a ticket or a more serious charge later, courts can consider anything you say during the stop as an admission of guilt.

As a driver, you have constitutional rights and should know them. However, you must balance these protections with adherence to laws that protect police officers.

Avoiding Self Incrimination

What you do or don't say at a traffic stop can influence the officer's next steps. It can lead an officer to let you go with a warning. Conversely, it can also prompt them to go through the process to arrest you.

The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects you from self-incrimination. This means you have the right not to answer the officer's questions. They may ask you about the reason for your travel, where you are going, or if you know the reason for the stop. You have the right to remain silent and not answer questions that could potentially incriminate you.

For example, if an officer asks, "Do you know you ran a stop sign?" you can choose not to answer. Even if you're aware you violated a traffic law, you are not required to admit it during the stop.

Constitutional Rights During a Traffic Stop

Traffic stops are the most likely time you'll encounter law enforcement. During a traffic stop, both parties are trying to determine the situation and what will happen next. This can be a common source of rights violations, which can undermine any charges or tickets you face if you can prove it in court.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects you from unreasonable searches and seizures. This means officers need a search warrant before performing a vehicle search, but there are situations where an officer doesn't need a warrant because of probable cause.

Under these circumstances, a warrantless search or seizure is legal if the officer has probable cause. Probable cause means the officer must have a reasonable belief a crime has been committed and a search of your vehicle may uncover evidence of the crime.

An officer is also within their rights to perform a search or seizure of what is in plain view in your vehicle. The Plain View Doctrine allows law enforcement to seize anything they can plainly see in your vehicle. If police stop you for speeding but you have a visible open alcohol container in your backseat, the officer can act appropriately without a search warrant.

Police Roadblocks and Sobriety Checkpoints

Roadblocks and DUI checkpoints seemingly contradict the protections the Fourth Amendment provides. In these instances, officers stop all cars going through the area, which means they lack probable cause for each car. This is because they haven't assessed the situation of each individual car.

The Supreme Court has used a balancing test for roadblocks. A balancing test weighs the government's interest against the burden on individuals. Using this for DUI checkpoints, the Supreme Court ruled in 1990 that the state has a strong interest in preventing drunk driving, which outweighs the people's right to privacy.

As for roadblocks, the Supreme Court concluded in 2000 that the roadblock must have a specific purpose outside the normal purpose of preventing crime. An example of a specific purpose is police setting up a roadblock to gather information about a hit-and-run accident that occurred at the same location and time of night as the roadblock.

Hiring a Lawyer for a Traffic Violation

You can resolve most traffic tickets yourself. However, if you have questions or the stakes are high, you can contact a local traffic ticket attorney for legal advice. An experienced attorney can review your legal options and determine if the law enforcement officer violated your rights.

Driving under the influence is much more serious than a simple traffic infraction. If you are facing a DUI or DWI, you should contact an attorney in your area with expertise in DUI law.

Learn About Getting Pulled Over

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

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  • Experienced lawyers can seek to reduce or eliminate penalties
  • A lawyer can help you keep your license

Get tailored legal advice and ask a lawyer questions. Many traffic ticket attorneys offer free consultations.

 

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