Knowing Your Traffic Stop Rights
It’s one of those things that you wish you would have learned before it happens. Now that you see the flashing lights in your rearview mirror, you know that it’s too late. You have to pull over your car; the officer driving behind you saw something he or she didn’t like. Regardless of the reason, how should you behave? What should you say? What are you required – and not required – to do? How you proceed can mean the difference between a positive police interaction and a dangerous one.
What to Do During a Traffic Stop:
First, let’s discuss how things are, ignoring how they should be. The police are always going to be careful when they approach a traffic stop. Every civilian interaction they have could easily become a dangerous situation in their minds. You can help to ease a cop’s nerves by doing a few basic things:
- Pull over right away. Don’t delay. Waiting too long to pull will irritate the officer and could lead to bigger issues for you (misdemeanor or felony eluding).
- Stay in your vehicle. Any movement to exit the vehicle will immediately escalate the situation in the officer’s mind.
- Get your license and registration out and put it in plain sight on your lap before the officer gets out of his vehicle. This will prevent any possible misunderstanding with your movement if/when you need to retrieve it. Also, this assumes that you have it with you, which should always be the case.
- Put your hands on the steering wheel. This removes any threat that might be associated with reaching for items that are out of the officer’s sight. Again, the goal is to remove as much tension from the situation as possible. Putting your hands on the wheel is a clear signal to the officer that you are hoping to make this conversation as calm as possible for both him/her and you.
- Be polite. Yes, you are likely feeling annoyed and maybe a little nervous. Be nice, though. Answer (some of) the officer’s questions - more on this below. There is a chance, depending on the issue, that you will get a ticket, no matter what. Being polite, however, gives you a small possibility to win over the officer with kindness and get away with a simple warning.
A full list of suggestions can be found on the City of Lynchburg’s website.
Your Traffic Stop Rights:
There are times when a traffic stop escalates into something more. This can happen when the officer has probable cause to look further into the overall situation. Examples might include showing signs of intoxication or the smell or presence of marijuana or any other illegal substance. At that point, the officer may ask some specific questions. This is where your preparation for this kind of situation will come in handy.
First, everything depends on how the officer speaks to you. For instance, if he or she asks how fast you were going or how much you have had to drink, you can politely decline to answer. The only kinds of questions you are required to answer are identifying questions. Be prepared for the officer to become suspicious, but if he is asking for permission to do something, you are allowed to decline.
This also extends to vehicle searches. If the officer asks you if he or she can search your vehicle, you are allowed to decline. On the other hand, if the officer tells you to slowly step out of the car, you must comply. He can do this if he plans to detain/arrest you, and if he does, he may be able to search your vehicle incident to the arrest. If you want to know whether or not a warrant is required, ask kindly. Keep in mind, however, that an officer is permitted to search your vehicle is he has probable cause. Make it a part of the conversation to explore your rights in the situation. Again, your conversation with the police officer is very important here. Maintain your politeness, but feel free to question if you are required to perform the actions that the officer would like you to perform.
There is much more to say, but it can be address in future posts. In the meantime, do your best to avoid getting pulled over. If and when you inevitably do, however, keep your cool and use your head. Think through the situation. Pay attention to the officers’ words, and try to keep the situation calm. It is what both you and officer want anyway. And, as always, call or e-mail for a free consultation!
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