What Can … And Should … You Do When You’re Pulled Over?

by: Matt Newburg

01/26/2016 10:27 AM EST
  pulled over  
  Traffic stop  

There have been numerous incidents lately where drivers have been pulled over by law enforcement and the situation has escalated, with unfortunate results. One recent case is that of Sandra Bland, who was found dead in a Texas jail cell three days after a routine traffic stop. 

Situations like these are a reminder of why drivers need to know their legal rights when they’re pulled over. What is — and what is not — legally permissible for the officer and the driver to do?

First and foremost, drivers should be alert and attentive when they’re interacting with law enforcement. Drivers should also try to keep the situation from becoming contentious. At the same time, officers should be well-trained to diffuse any interactions that become troublesome.

In general, drivers should always make sure the officer can see their hands. Motorists should not make sudden moves, interfere with what the officer is doing, or give false statements. In other words, drivers should not give the police a reason to mistreat them or hit them with another charge (in addition to what they may already be facing).

Here are some basic things to remember if you are pulled over by law enforcement.

1. You have the right to remain silent. 

You must show a driver’s license and identify yourself to the police officer during a traffic stop. While you cannot legally be arrested for not presenting identification, you should comply and do so. If you do not present ID, you may be asked to state your name, age, and address. You must also show the officer your vehicle registration and proof of auto insurance. 

You do not have to answer any questions without a lawyer present. If you’re asked a question, you can simply say, “I choose not to answer that question.”

If you are ultimately detained or arrested, do not speak without a lawyer being present. Do not explain anything or make excuses. If you do, these statements may be used against you in a court proceeding.

2. You do not have to consent to a search of yourself or your car.  

Officers often ask drivers whether they mind if they “take a look” inside the car. You do not have to give permission for an officer to look inside your vehicle. 

However, an officer can search your body without your consent to look for firearms or other dangerous weapons. If this happens, you are allowed to tell the officer that you do not consent to a “full search” of your body. But if the officer ignores you, do not physically resist; you may challenge it afterward.

Keep in mind that, if there is “probable cause” to search you or your car (i.e., the officer believes that either you or the car is involved in a crime), or if you have been placed under arrest, the officer can search you and your vehicle without your consent.

If law enforcement takes things while searching you or your car, you must be given a receipt for the items that are removed.

3. If you’re arrested during a traffic stop, you have the right to ask for an attorney — and should do so immediately. 

If you have only been stopped temporarily, you’re not entitled to an attorney at that point. However, if you’re held for an extended period of time (detained), the police must either decide to let you go or place you under arrest.

If an officer tells you that you are being detained or arrested, immediately ask to speak to an attorney. Tell the officer you will not answer any questions unless your attorney is present.

4. If you’ve been stopped (but not detained or arrested), you have the right to ask whether you’re free to go. 

You can ask the officer whether you are being detained or arrested. If you are not being detained or arrested, then you are free to go and should calmly leave. You should never run from a police officer. 

Do not try to physically resist an officer who tries to detain you. It is better to be safe and then contest the officer’s actions later.

5. You get a ticket. 

If the officer gives you a citation, follow the instructions for payment or else appeal its issuance. If you fail to respond to the ticket within the time stated, you can be arrested.

6. You are suspected of DUI. 

If the officer suspects you are driving while intoxicated, or while under the influence of a controlled substance, you will be asked to undergo field sobriety tests, including a breathalyzer. If you refuse a field sobriety and/or breathalyzer test, be advised that your driver’s license can be immediately suspended. 

7. Stay calm and be polite. 

Even if you believe your rights have been violated during a traffic stop, recognize that you’re not going to argue your way out of a problem. You should take note of the circumstances surrounding the encounter — including the police officer’s name and badge number — and then pursue legal action afterward.