If the police pull you over, you want to be as prepared as possible. Knowing what to say and do through all phases of a traffic stop can help ensure a smooth and safe interaction with law enforcement. Your words and actions in these situations can also be crucial later in court if you challenge a traffic ticket.
Whether a police officer pulls you over for a minor traffic infraction or something more serious, the following pointers can promote a mutually respectful exchange. They can also help prevent self-incrimination.
When You First See the Police Car
When you see the flashing lights or hear the siren, pull over quickly and safely using your flashers or turn signals. This lets the police officer know you understand and comply. Pull as far to the right side of the road as possible. If you are next to a safe place (like a parking lot or a residential area), you can also stop your vehicle there.
Your goal is to make it clear immediately that you understand they are in control. By pulling over promptly, you can also be near the scene of your alleged violation. This allows you to review the scene to evaluate the officer's claim. Look for potential defenses you could use later in traffic court, such as obstructed views.
Immediately After You Are Stopped
Take a deep breath as the officer approaches your vehicle. Always be polite during traffic stops, even if the officer is short with you. Roll down your window, turn off the engine, and place your hands on the steering wheel. If it is nighttime, turn on your interior light.
Be prepared to show your driver's license, proof of insurance, and motor vehicle registration. However, do not reach for these before being asked. Once requested, let the officer know where these items are before retrieving them. You can say something like, "My driver's license is in my purse, and my insurance and registration are in my glove compartment."
Law enforcement officers are trained to spot motorists stashing contraband or reaching for hidden items, and they may misinterpret your actions. You might be reaching for your registration, but the officer may think you're going for a gun.
If you suspect they are not a police officer (like if an unmarked car pulled you over), ask politely to see their photo identification and badge. If you still are unsure, you can ask that they call a supervisor to the scene. You can also request that you be allowed to follow the officer to a police department station.
Don't Give the Officer an Excuse to Search Your Car
Law enforcement is typically not allowed to search your car during a routine traffic stop. However, you can inadvertently give the officer a valid reason to search your car if you're not careful. Once they shine their spotlight on your car, they are watching closely for any suspicious movements.
For example, if an officer observes you trying to throw something out of the window, they may legally search your car. If you appear to hunch down, they may reasonably believe you're hiding something under the seat. Be calm, don't make sudden or suspicious movements, and don't reach for anything until the officer asks.
An officer can search your car if they have probable cause. In this context, probable cause means a reasonable basis to believe that you or your passengers are involved in criminal activity. Even if they don't initially have probable cause, an officer can inspect anything in plain view. Common examples of items in plain view include:
- Open beer cans
- Wine bottles
- Drug paraphernalia
- Weapons or ammunition
- Stolen property
The officer can legally seize any other objects they come across.
Finally, an officer can search your car if you or any passenger is arrested. If you are arrested, the police may tow your vehicle and do an inventory search of its contents. No reasonable suspicion or warrant is needed to perform an inventory search on an impounded vehicle.
Only Get Out of Your Car if the Police Officer Asks
Stay in your car unless the police officer asks you to get out. If this happens, maintain respectful communication and exit the vehicle slowly and with caution. Officers are trained to expect the worst, and any frenetic or sudden movements may make them think you could fight or flee.
Exiting the vehicle may allow you to survey the scene better. This can help you verify the officer's allegations. This can be useful later in traffic court should you decide to challenge the citation.
An officer can legally frisk you if they have reason to believe you're armed, dangerous, or involved in criminal activity. A frisk refers to a pat down of your outer clothing to identify concealed items that could compromise officer safety. If the officer finds something suspicious, they can grab the concealed object.
Talking to the Police Officer
Let the officer do most of the talking. Be respectful with your communication, but don't overshare. A few things to keep in mind include:
- Don't interrupt
- Don't be argumentative
- Don't say anything they can use against you later in court
When an officer asks you specific questions, give short answers that prevent you from incriminating yourself. If an officer pulls you over for a traffic offense, some common questions include:
- "Do you know why I stopped you?"
- "Do you know how fast you were going?"
- "Are you aware you ran a stop sign?"
Officers are trained to let you self-incriminate by allowing you to admit to an offense or that you were careless or negligent. To avoid this, give noncommittal responses such as "OK" or "I see," if possible. Do not admit to the alleged violation.
Often, the best course is simply not to respond. Silence is not an admission of guilt and cannot be used against you. Be polite, but don't give the officer more information than necessary. It's their job to prove your guilt.
How a Traffic Ticket Attorney Can Help
The rules and regulations for traffic stops can be complex, and it's important to be aware of your rights and responsibilities. If you have questions about a citation you received for a traffic violation, you can talk to a traffic ticket lawyer in your area. A skilled attorney knowledgeable about local traffic laws can assess the stop to ensure the officer did not infringe on your rights. They can even help you challenge a ticket in traffic court.
If you have been charged with a more serious violation, like a DUI, you should contact a criminal defense attorney. An experienced attorney can review the circumstances of your charge, including field sobriety tests or blood alcohol content results, and help you develop a strong defense.