Getting pulled over by authorities makes a lot of people uneasy and nervous, whether they’ve done something wrong or not, and it’s a situation no one wants to find themselves in. Police officers are enforcers of the law, and they have a responsibility to keep citizens safe, which means they can conduct traffic stops when they have reasonable suspicion that someone violates traffic or criminal law. Being pulled over by a police officer can be a stressful experience for drivers, passengers, and officers. Knowing what to do in this situation can ensure your safety as well as the safety of others.
Seeing emergency lights behind you can startle you and maybe make you panic. However, you and your passenger need to remain calm and cooperate. You need to do the following if you notice emergency lights behind you:
- Use your turn signal to pull to the side of the road as soon as it is safe to do so
- Turn off the engine and pause or turn off the radio if you have music playing
- Remain in your vehicle unless an officer directs you to exit the vehicle
- Turn on the car’s interior lights to help with visibility if you are pulled over at night. An officer may use a spotlight for additional visibility.
- Your hands need to remain on the steering wheel or keep them visible so they are observed easily.
- You and your passengers must follow all instructions the officer provides
An officer can approach either side of your vehicle. Once the officer approaches your vehicle, remember the following:
- Lower the window on the side where the officer is standing so you and the officer can communicate.
- If you have a weapon in your vehicle, this is the first thing you need to tell the officer.
- Await the officer’s instructions before reaching for any documents, such as your driver’s license or vehicle documentation (vehicle registration and proof of insurance)
When an officer is conducting a stop, they will typically tell you why you were stopped and ask questions about your trip. You’ll be asked for your driver’s license, vehicle registration, and proof of a valid auto insurance policy. If the necessary documents are not in your immediate reach (glove compartment or center console), tell the officer where these documents are, and wait for further instructions from the officer. If the officer is not in uniform, they will show you their law enforcement credentials. If you are not shown credentials, you can ask to see them.
In some instances, you may be asked to exit your vehicle. In this scenario, always keep your hands visible while exiting the vehicle. Once you’re out of your vehicle, stand in the location the officer asks you to. Next, several events can occur. You may be issued a warning, a traffic ticket, or you may be arrested. The officer will explain the action that will be taken. If not, you can ask the officer to do so.
If you have questions, ask the officer to clarify, and make sure you do so in a respectful manner. If you disagree with the course of action or the decision the officer made, DO NOT argue with the officer. You can contest the decision in court through the proper legal channels. Be advised that your acceptance and signature on a traffic ticket is NOT an admission of guilt. However, refusing to sign a traffic ticket can result in your arrest.
Do you think the officer acted inappropriately? If so, or if you have questions regarding the officer’s conduct, you can contact the officer’s agency and ask to speak to a supervisor. If you’re going to take this route, do so as soon as possible.
If you are pulled over by an officer, there are a few things you need to know about the law. Your rights as a driver or passenger that apply when you are pulled over by an officer vary by state laws, as well as the legal outcomes of unique situations, such as a traffic stop that results in an arrest.
For instance, an officer must have reasonable suspicion to pull you over, which can be anything from speeding, neglecting to signal a turn, or having expired license plates or a broken tail light. Police officers must also have probable cause to search you or your vehicle during a traffic stop.
As a driver or passenger, you can wait to pull over if it’s not safe, such as being pulled over on a busy street, or intersection, or exiting off of the highway. Officers must have reasonable suspicion to pull you over. You can use your Fifth Amendment right to remain quiet. You are NOT obligated to take a roadside breathalyzer test. If you are selected, you must stop at police checkpoints. You can also record your encounters with police officers. However, police officers can search your vehicle if they have probable cause. Remember that the laws regarding traffic stops are different in each state. You can protest an illegal stop with legal guidance.
As a driver or passenger, you have the right to safety. If you are traveling on a busy highway or on a dark part of the road where no other vehicles are around you, you are NOT required to stop on the roadside if you feel the surroundings look unsafe. This means you can avoid stopping your vehicle on a busy road, a dangerous street, or a narrow shoulder in hopes of finding a well-lit parking lot or the next highway exit. However, this right as a driver or passenger does NOT give you the liberty to drive on indefinitely with an officer trying to pull you over. You can slow down and turn on your blinker or hazard lights to safely bring your vehicle to a stop. Make sure you indicate to the officer that you’re trying to comply.
We’ve briefly discussed your rights and different laws that drivers, passengers, and officers must follow, but we’ll provide different scenarios to help you better understand what to expect when dealing with law enforcement.
Officers must have a reason to pull you over, such as having a broken tail light or speeding. If an officer believes you have broken a traffic law, you will be pulled over. In most scenarios, the officer will tell you why you were pulled over. If a police officer asks you if you know the reason you were pulled over, it may be in your best interest to ask why you were pulled over instead of admitting fault, such as admitting to speeding, to avoid self-incrimination.
During the traffic stop, the officer may ask for your license and registration to ensure you’re legally allowed to operate a motor vehicle. You may also be asked different questions to determine the reason for the traffic violation, such as, “Do you know the current speed limit on this road?” If the police officer determines there’s a driving infraction, you may be written a ticket or given a warning. However, the outcome is at the officer’s discretion.
In this scenario, there is somewhat of a grey area. Simply because an officer pulls you over and gives you a ticket doesn’t mean the officer is right. For example, maybe the light was yellow when your vehicle was at the intersection, or the nearest speed limit sign was knocked over. It’s not uncommon for an officer to suspect your vehicle is stolen because you’re traveling through an area that has a high risk of theft. Yes, it happens. You can take a chance and try to convince the officer that you weren’t in the wrong, or you can fight the ticket. Remember that accepting the ticket doesn’t mean you automatically accept fault!
You’ve heard officers say, “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in the court of law.” This is known as your Miranda Rights. When a police officer pulls you over, they will most likely ask you a series of questions. If you know that you don’t have anything to hide, cooperate with the officer as much as possible. Doing so can alleviate the tension and help you get back on the road quicker.
However, the law supports your refusal to answer any of the officer’s questions, as long as you inform the officer that that’s what you’re doing. Outright refusing to speak with the officer can make the situation more complicated, and you don’t want to do that, so you’ll need to verbally invoke your Fifth Amendment to remain silent. Many lawyers will also recommend asking the officer if you’re free to go, or state (in a respectful manner) that you will not be answering any questions and you would like a lawyer.
If an officer asks you to blow into a breathalyzer during a traffic stop, by law, you are allowed to refuse to do so. Be advised that refusing means a police officer has the right to take you to a police station or hospital, where you may be subject to a urine or blood test.
If you fail a field sobriety test, you can be arrested. A field sobriety test can include demonstrating that you can walk in a straight line. In most states, you can legally request to have a blood test at the hospital at your own expense within a reasonable time. However, you won’t be able to choose the kind of test the officer uses. Refusing to take ANY test most often results in being charged with a DUI and/or a license suspension. Taking or refusing the roadside breathalyzer test can result in specific consequences that depend on the state and how much you’ve had to drink.
Many lawyers will advise you to take the breathalyzer test during a traffic stop if you are asked to. Why? These tests won’t hold up in course as well as other tests that are more controlled, such as those that take place in a police station or hospital. If your lawyer can prove that the roadside test was administered incorrectly or that the test was inaccurate, it could work in your favor.
If you notice a police checkpoint ahead of you, you must stop your vehicle if it is selected. During a police checkpoint, all vehicles won’t be stopped. It’s usually every other vehicle or third vehicle that’s selected. However, if your vehicle is selected, pull over to the shoulder of the road or where the officer directs you, and be prepared to present your driver’s license, proof of a valid auto insurance policy, and your vehicle’s registration card.
The worst thing you can do in this situation is back out of the line and try to go a different way to avoid the checkpoint. If you are seen trying to avoid the checkpoint, an officer may follow you and pull you over, which can lead to more suspicion and questions.
A dash cam can help you in many scenarios, especially during a police stop. There are no federal laws that prohibit the use of dashcams. However, make sure you’re not infringing on other rights. For instance, some states prohibit mounting anything, including a dashcam to or on the windshield because it can obstruct your view of the road or other drivers.
You also need to be aware of the laws that pertain to legal surveillance. Depending on the state you’re traveling through or reside in, you may live in a one-party or two-party consent state, which means it could be against the law to record conversations of your passengers without explicitly stating that you are recording the conversations. If you plan on using a dash camera or recording a traffic stop, especially encounters that involve law enforcement, make sure you’re transparent about the recording devices that are in use.
Be advised that although you’re legally allowed to record an encounter with an on-duty police officer, there have been instances where officers have pressed charges against civilians or arrested them for recording them. When these situations arise, they are generally made under the pretext of obstruction of justice or violating recording consent laws. These cases are almost always dismissed, but remember that there is the possibility of being arrested for exercising your legal right to record.
You’ve probably got a lot of questions, so we’ve provided answers to the most common questions.
Many police officer uniforms are outfitted with body cameras, and the cameras must remain on, which can be a benefit or a detriment. However, every action is recorded, which makes it easier to avoid a “he said, she said” conversation later. On the downside of things, since officers are being watched, it’s likely, they won’t allow minor infractions to slide, such as expired tags or a broken tail light.
Before you ask, asking a police officer to turn off their body camera will likely result in a “no”. The camera must remain on for traffic stops in most states.
Good question! If a police officer has a warrant to search your vehicle, you don’t have a choice in this matter, as you are legally required to allow them to search your vehicle. However, there are different situations where a police officer is allowed to search your vehicle without a warrant. You will be held liable for anything found in your vehicle during the search, even if you don’t agree with the cause of the vehicle search.
Police officers are required to have probable cause to take a closer look at your vehicle, which in turn means they must have a reason to believe you’re connected with a crime. However, probable cause is a broad topic. Probable cause can be minor, such as an air freshener. In many states, you are prohibited from hanging anything from your rear-view mirror if it can obstruct your view of the road ahead. In other situations, an officer may pull you over because they suspect you of speeding because you have been drinking, and they want to search your vehicle for signs of alcohol.
There are different scenarios when a police officer can legally be allowed to check your vehicle, including the following:
- After you have given consent to the search – If you inform a police officer that they are allowed to search your vehicle, they have the right to do so. Anything the officer finds during this search is fair game for issuing a ticket or pursuing legal action against you.
- When an item is out in the open – when you leave an item in the open (the plain-view doctrine) allows a police officer to investigate your vehicle if illegal substances or contraband are visible to an officer during a traffic stop. For example, if a police officer sees drug paraphernalia on the floor of your vehicle, they have reason to perform a full legal search on your vehicle without requiring a warrant.
- If you are arrested – if a police officer has enough evidence to justify your arrest during a traffic stop, they are allowed to search your vehicle.
- When it’s likely you have committed a crime – this is a grey area scenario where “probable cause” enters the situation. Probable cause is meant to allow police officers the chance to investigate an individual or vehicle whenever they deem it necessary. It is not illegal for you to insist on remaining in the driver’s seat or informing the officer that you have an item that resembles a weapon or blood in your vehicle. However, this is enough cause for an officer to believe you are trying to cover something up and justify a search.
- When high-priority circumstances are involved – if a police officer believes you are about to hide or destroy evidence, this is probable cause for the officer to search your vehicle. For instance, if you are pulled over, and appear frantic or appear to try to hide an object(s), an officer can use your behavior as justification to legally search you or the vehicle for evidence.
Once an officer demonstrates probable cause, they are allowed to investigate anything suspicious they smell, hear, or see in your vehicle. An officer can also perform a body search or check your backpack or purse if they believe you’re hiding weapons or illegal substances, which applies to the driver and all passengers.
However, police officers are not allowed to check any compartment or anything else that is locked, such as a glovebox or a password-protected cell phone. Remember that even if you don’t agree with the officer’s reason for pulling you over, or if you believe the probable cause is thin, you will remain responsible for all fines and tickets as a result of the traffic stop. You are also responsible for anything that is found in your if an officer searches your vehicle, and this includes any passengers you may have.
As soon as you hear the sirens and see the red and blue lights, use your turn signal, and pull your vehicle over to a safe location on the shoulder of the road. Make sure you turn off your music and GPS if you’re using one. Turn on the car’s interior light if you are pulled over at night. Remain in your vehicle unless the police officer asks you to exit.
Ensure your hands are in plain sight or that they remain on the steering wheel. If you are carrying passengers, make sure they follow the same safety rules. It may be a good idea to wait until the officer asks you for your driver’s license, proof of auto insurance, and the registration card before you start looking for the documents. This is a great example of you acting suspiciously as if you are trying to hide something.
Always be polite and direct when the officer asks you questions. If the officer asks you if you know why they pulled you over, it’s in your best interest to say you don’t know. Otherwise, you may be inadvertently providing the officer with evidence of exactly how fast you were traveling, for instance, or admitting to a traffic violation the officer was not aware of.
Getting pulled over by a police officer can certainly be intimidating, but don’t panic. It will help in the long run if you remain calm. Use the tips and expert advice provided above to help you if you get pulled over by law enforcement. Stay safe and happy driving!