Getting Stopped by the Police: What and What Not to Do

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D. Gilson is a writer and author of essays, poetry, and scholarship that explore the relationship between popular culture, literature, sexuality, and memoir. His latest book is Jesus Freak, with Will Stockton, part of Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 Series. His other books include I Will Say This Exactly One Time and Crush. His first chapbook...

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UPDATED: Mar 13, 2020

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Being pulled over by law enforcement doesn't have to be a stressful event

Being pulled over by law enforcement doesn’t have to be a stressful event. (image by nytimes.com)

We’ve discussed the impact moving violations and serious offenses such as driving under the influence can have on your car insurance premiums before, but we’ve never gone into detail on how to deal with being pulled over by the police.

It’s easy to understand why some consider the experience stressful and upsetting, especially if they don’t realize why they’re being pulled over. But there really isn’t much to worry or stress over – your first reaction if you do see the flashing lights of a police cruiser behind you should be to remain calm and relaxed. There could be a number of reasons why you’re being pulled over, and it isn’t simply because you’ve done something wrong.

So why would you be pulled over? Some common reasons include:

  • Failure to use your turn signal before making a turn
  • Non-functional lights, such as brake lights, a headlight or turn signals
  • Having expired license plates and/or registration
  • Failure to show your license plates
  • Speeding/Exceeding the posted speed limit
  • DUI checkpoints and/or suspicion of DUI
  • Other moving violations, such as failure to stop fully at a stop sign, or running a red light

Beyond trying to remain calm, it’s important that you comply with the police. This means locating a spot that will keep both you and the officer safe – you shouldn’t pull over in an area that will place either of you in danger. If you’re being pulled over at night, try to ensure the spot is in a well-lit area. We aslo suggest turning on your interior lights once you’re stopped at night as well.

Make sure to signal your intentions by activating your turn signal and slowing down. Once you’ve brought your car to a stop, put it into park if you have an automatic transmission, or neutral and engage your emergency brake if you have a manual transmission.

We’ve heard different opinions from police officers regarding shutting off the engine of the car. The biggest concern voiced by officers is dealing with cars that won’t start after the stop is complete. We recommend you do turn off your vehicle, and simply leave your keys in the ignition.

You should roll down your driver’s side window, and if your car has dark tint, it’s a good idea to roll all of your windows down, especially at night. Turn off the radio or any other entertainment devices and place your hands on the steering wheel. The officer’s first consideration will be their own safety, and if your hands are visible and on the wheel, they won’t perceve you as a threat. Wait for the officer to approach, and allow them to speak first.

The officer will likely ask you for your driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance. You should obtain the documents slowly and without any extra movements or actions. Be deliberate in getting these documents, and once you hand them to the officer, place your hands back on the steering wheel so they are visible.

Answer all questions the officer may ask in a brief manner. “Yes” and “no” should suffice for most questions you are asked. You should not exit the car unless the officer explicitly asks you to get out. Remember to be respectful and polite, and think carefully about your answers to any question you are asked.

If the officer informs you that you are being cited, they’ll ask you to sign the citation, which contrary to the myth that you’re admitting guilt for the offense, simply acts as proof of receipt. This is not an admission of guilt, and you should always comply with the instructions the officer gives you. Guilty or not, unfair or not, this is not the time to argue or debate the merits of a citation. You’ll be able to have your day in court if you wish to fight the charge.

While the procedures for dealing with a traffic stop are simple, there are a number of things you should never do if you’re pulled over. These include:

  • Don’t ignore the lights of a police car, refuse to pull over, or pull over into an unsafe area.
  • Don’t get out of your car or approach the officer – this may be perceived as a threat. If the officer orders you to exit your car, then comply.
  • Don’t speak first. Wait for the police officer to speak, and simply answer his or her questions.
  • Don’t make unnecessary movements with your hands, or reach under your seat or glove box without reason. This may also be perceived as a threat, or that you are reaching for a weapon.
  • Don’t touch the officer or encroach on their personal space. Do not threaten the police officer.
  • Don’t become argumentative, disorderly or abusive. Even if you believe you have been treated unfairly, this is not the time to argue your point. Becoming abusive or disorderly may result in your arrest.

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