UPDATED: Mar 13, 2020
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Nine times out of 10, during a traffic stop, the police officer is taking every step possible to ensure their own safety, without violating the rights of you or anyone else in the car you’re driving. But police officers may make some requests during a stop that you can legally refuse. Knowing your rights and what you can do to facilitate the needs of a police officer without giving up those rights can help prevent a routine traffic stop from escalating into something far more confrontational. You may even be able to avoid getting a ticket.
- Pull over, turn off the ignition, and put your hands on the steering wheel: When you see flashing red lights, signal and pull over to the right as far as possible. Turn off the ignition, and place both of your hands on the steering wheel. Right off the bat you are letting the officer know you are not a threat. Any passengers should remain still for the duration of the traffic stop.
- Roll your window down just half way: You may want to wait until the officer arrives at the driver side window before you roll it down. Use just one hand while keeping the other on the wheel. Rolling the window down just half way allows for a respectful exchange between you and the officer but prevents the officer from sticking his or her nose inside your car.
- Wait until the officer asks to see your documents before retrieving them: This is something you should prepare for in advance. Officers will ask to see some combination of your driver’s license, proof of insurance, and vehicle registration. Make sure all of this documentation is up to date and easily accessible.
- Do not incriminate yourself: If the officer asks you, “Do you know why I pulled you over?” or “Did you know that you ran that stop sign back there?” all you need to say in response is, “No officer.” You do not need to confess to an officer that you were speeding or otherwise breaking a law. Do not give up your Fifth Amendment right that states no person “shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.”
- Do not take anything the officer says personally: A police officer might try to upset you by implying you are engaging in some kind of illegal activity:
- “There’s a lot of gang activity in this neighborhood. Are you in a gang?”
- “What’s a pretty lady like you doing driving this late at night?”
- “Looks like you’ve been partying. Have you been drinking?
As we have already pointed out, saying “No officer,” is a respectful way to respond to questions meant to trip you up and incriminate yourself. If necessary, you can file a complaint about an officer’s conduct later, but during a traffic stop, try not to take anything the officer says personally.
- Exit the car only if asked: You are required by law to step out of your vehicle if an officer asks you to. However, you can and should shut and lock the driver door behind you. Leaving the door open can be interpreted as your consenting to a search. If the officer asks why you locked the door, simply say, “I always lock my car doors, officer.”
- Do not consent to a search: Unless there is what’s known as probable cause, an officer will need your permission to search your vehicle. Without probable cause, you do not have to consent to a search. Remain calm, and simply say, “I do not consent to any searches officer.” Refusal to consent to a search does not give an officer the legal right to detain you, and consenting to a search makes the search legal in the eyes of the law. The officer may go ahead and execute a search anyway, but your statement will help you later in court.
- Stay cool If you find yourself standing outside of your locked car with an officer yelling and threatening you, try to remember he or she is most likely trying to get you to consent to be searched, admit a crime, or make a verbal threat. Breathe, and do your best to stay calm. You are within your rights to either remain silent or…
- Ask if you are free to go: Once the officer has returned your documents and license to you, unless you are being detained or arrested, you are legally free to go. But asking if you are free to go, and then waiting for a response, assures you that the officer isn’t going to accuse you of fleeing the scene of a crime. Simply saying, “Are you detaining me officer? Or am I free to go now?” is also a good way to respond if an officer tries to bait you into saying something self-incriminating.
Eight points to remember if you get pulled over by the police:
- Pull over, turn off the ignition, put your hands on the steering wheel
- Roll your window down just half way
- Wait until the officer asks to see your documents before retrieving them
- Don’t take anything the officer says personally
- Exit the car only if asked
- Do not consent to a search
- Stay cool
- Ask if you are free to go
Three things you should say if you get pulled over:
- “No officer. I don’t know why you pulled me over.”
- “I do not consent to any searches.”
- “Are you detaining me officer? Or am I free to go now?”