Know Your Rights: What to Do When You Get Pulled Over

Knowing what to do when you get pulled over means knowing your rights. Those include the right to remain silent, the right to know why you were pulled over, the right to refuse a vehicle search, and the right to record the encounter.

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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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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore...

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UPDATED: Jun 12, 2020

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Summary DetailsFrom the Experts...
Over 20 million traffic stops are conduct each year (an average of 50,000 per day)Stanford University Open Policing Project
Rights at a traffic stop include knowing why you were stopped, exercising the right to remain silent, and recording your encounterJeffrey Johnson, Lawyer and Managing Editor of FreeAdvice.com
Both your fourth and fifth amendment rights apply during traffic stopsFindLaw
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You’re driving down the road and see flashing lights in your back window. You know you have to stop, but what comes next? What documents do you need when you get pulled over? Where do you put your hands? What do you say to the police officer?

Knowing what to do when you get pulled over isn’t just a good idea or something that may reduce the cost of your citation. It can save your life. Read through this article to learn exactly what to do and say, what documents you’ll need, what your rights are, and more when you get stopped by the police.

Before we get started, take a minute to use your ZIP code and get a free quote on car insurance, so you’re prepared if and when you’re pulled over.

Getting Pulled Over

When you’re driving, safety first should always be your focus. But chances are, at some point, you’ll still end up getting pulled over. Nine times out of 10, during a traffic stop, a 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. Keep reading to learn more.

What should I do when I get pulled over?

We’ve compiled a list of tips you should follow when you’re pulled over, to facilitate the situation and ensure the police officer doesn’t feel disrespected or threatened by the exchange.

  • 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 as soon as it is safe to do so. 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 their 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. If officers ask to see your driver’s license, proof of insurance, and vehicle registration, you are required to provide it. 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 to remain silent.
  • 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 by asking question like: “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?”, or “Looks like you’ve been partying. Have you been drinking? Don’t let questions let these get to you.

You can also watch this video on traffic stop tips, provided by the Cobb County Police in Georgia.

Now that you know what to do, we’ll spend some time discussing your rights and how to exercise them during a traffic stop.

What rights do I have if I get pulled over?

When you get pulled over, it can be a scary, frustrating, and overwhelming experience. In the tips we provided above, we mentioned that you have some rights during a traffic stop. To ensure you’re prepared, there are rights you should know when dealing with the police. We’ll also touch on what cops can and can’t do.

If you live in Alabama, what are your rights when pulled over? Are there specific California rights when dealing with the police? In general, the police pull over procedure and your rights when dealing with the police at a traffic stop are fairly standard throughout the country.

You have the right to remain silent (recall we noted that you have your fifth amendment rights at a traffic stop). You can ask if you are free to go. You also have your fourth amendment rights. According to Jeffrey Johnson, Lawyer and Managing Editor of FreeAdvice.com,

“You are not required to let the police search your car…They can search your car without your consent, but they must have a reasonable belief that the search is justified under the circumstances. Usually the reason you’re pulled over is a factor: it would be unreasonable to search your car for drugs or weapons if you’re pulled over for speeding and have no criminal history, for example.

Your expectations of privacy are less in your car than in your home, but you are still protected by the fourth amendment. If your car is searched…you should make a record of your experience as soon as you can. This can be valuable…if there are charges that arise in connection to the stop.”

Does a cop have to tell you why you’re being pulled over? Yes. You have the right to know why you were stopped. You can’t be pulled over without probable cause, so while police can pull you over for suspicion, it must be suspicion based on probable cause that can be articulated.

Jeffrey Johnson also notes, “you have the right to record the encounter, but you should inform the officer that you are doing so. This can help ensure your rights are fully respected and that you have a full record of the encounter.”

How do I exercise my rights at a traffic stop? 

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. We’ve compiled some tips on how to exercise your rights below.

  • 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: Without probable cause or a reasonable belief, an officer will need your permission to search your vehicle. 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. As we noted earlier, 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 they are 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 the officer won’t 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.

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The Bottom Line for What to Do When You’re Pulled Over

When you’re pulled over, not only is it important to know your rights, which include the right to remain silent, the right to know why you were pulled over, and the right to record your encounter with the police, but you also need to know what to do when you’re pulled over by police at night or during the day.

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 that will ensure you’re exercising your rights:

  • “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?”

Keep this information in mind whenever you’re on the road, so you’re prepared for if and when you get pulled over.

FAQs

Still have questions about what to do when you’re pulled over? Read through these frequently asked questions to learn more.

Can a cop pull you over if you’re parked and out of the car?

Yes, if you violated a traffic law while on your way to your parking destination, the cop saw you, and indicated they wanted to pull you over. This means a cop can give you a ticket after you park and get out of your vehicle.

Can a cop pull you over in your driveway?

As we noted in the previous answer, yes, if they saw you violate a traffic law while on your way to your driveway and indicated they wanted to pull you over. This is particularly common if they suspect you are driving under the influence.

Can police search your trunk?

Yes. if police have a reasonable belief that searching your vehicle is justified, they can search your entire vehicle, including your trunk, with or without your consent.

Can police search a parked car?

It depends on where the car is parked and whether there is a reason for the police officer to approach the vehicle. If you are illegally parked, a police officer has the lawful right to approach the vehicle, and can then execute a search if there is reasonable belief it is justifiable to do so. However, if your vehicle is legally parked in your driveway, for example, a warrant may be required.

Can a cop follow me?

If you’re wondering how long a cop can follow you before it’s considered harassment, there really isn’t a time frame. They could be following you for any number of reasons, and they might not be following you at all; they could just be headed in the same direction you are.

By the same token, there’s isn’t a time frame for how long a cop can wait to pull you over or how long a cop can pull you over for. However, in the case of how long a cop can pull you over for, the general expectation is no longer than about 20 minutes for a standard traffic stop. Longer than that may mean you have grounds for claiming unlawful detainment. This estimate is not applicable if the cop has reasonable suspicion of other crimes, however.

Can I get a ticket if I wasn’t pulled over?

If you live in a city or state that has red light or speeding cameras, you can get a ticket even if you weren’t pulled over, if the camera(s) catch you in the act.

How do I avoid getting pulled over?

Your best bet to avoid getting pulled over is to drive safely and follow all traffic laws. Some insurance companies and state motor vehicle departments recommend taking a defensive or safe driver course. But are driving courses worth it? Actually yes, they will improve your skills on the road, thereby reducing your chances of getting pulled over, and you may even qualify for some discounts on your car insurance just for taking the course.

Before you go, why not take a moment and use your ZIP code to get a free quote on car insurance so you have the coverage you need when you’re asked for proof of insurance at a traffic stop?

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