When you get pulled over by police, it’s natural to have an overwhelming feeling of fear jolt through your body. What did you do wrong? How much is this going to cost? Is this cop going to be nice or play the tough-guy act? While you’re asking yourself all of these questions, the officer is most likely getting you to admit to crimes without your even knowing. This post serves as a guide to help you understand what to do, what to say, and how to act when pulled over by an officer of the law.
We also offer you some Know Your Rights Cards in downloadable .png format for free. These cards allow you to exercise your rights without ever needing to open your mouth. Simply write your name in the section at the top, and if you ever encounter a police officer, you may hand them the card and be on your way (assuming you're not being detained).
1. Initial Reaction.
The second you see the lights on behind you, quickly pull over to the safest spot of road that you can find. This may seem like a no-brainer, but officers can be led to believe that if you do not pull over right away, that you’re trying to hide something from sight, or worse, trying to make a run for it. This instinctively could put the officer into hyper-vigilance mode, which makes them more likely to view you as a threat. This doesn’t mean pull over right away, but as soon as you find an area that’s relatively safe, you should pull over.
2. Don’t Move Around.
When you do pull off the road, leave your hands on the top of the steering wheel and face forward. Typically, when a police officer pulls you over, they will shine their spotlight at your side mirror, keeping track of where you're looking and where your hands are (in the case that the person they pull over reaches for a gun, etc.). If you’re bustling around, even to get your license and registration, they may become suspicious and may request to search the car (which you can respectfully decline if there’s no probable cause). Wait until the officer comes to your door, open the window fully, and let them ask the first question.
3. The Conversation.
This is probably the most important step because it’s an aspect of the traffic stop that most people don’t even realize is happening: the conversation. When an officer first pulls you over they may ask a slew of open-ended questions. The Miranda Rights read “anything you say can, and will, be used against you” for a reason you know!
For instance, a police officer asking “Do you know how fast you were going?” seems relatively light-hearted and possibly an opportunity to “come clean,” but what the officer is really doing is trying to get a verbal confession to speeding. Even if you were speeding a little bit, your confession may be enough to force you to pay a fine. This initial question is usually followed by a question along the lines of “do you know what the speed limit is?” It is important that you answer this question correctly. If you say you “don’t know” or answer with the wrong number, the officer may write you a “failure to obey traffic signs” violation.
If, instead you don't want to talk to the police at all, download our Rights Cards available below. These Rights Cards allow you to uphold your civil duties to the police officer (by writing your name at the top), enabling you to simply hand over the card and stay silent. These cards are extra helpful for people who feel anxiety or panic when dealing with a law enformenct officer.
4. Never Consent To A Search.
Initially, the officer typically does not have the right to search your car. There areseveral exceptions that officers will try to utilize to conduct legal searches, though. For instance, if the officer observes you moving furtively around your car, or sees your shoulder dip down (one may assume to hide something under your seat), he or she may legally search your property. Similarly, if the officer has a reasonable suspicion that you are committing a crime (based on possibly illicit smells, suspicious behavior, or by seeing something illegal in plain view) he or she may search your entire car legally.
That being said, many officers will not have a strong probable cause case but may try and receive your permission without your even realizing it. The most common phrase is probably, “You don’t mind if I search your car right?” Though this sounds very assertive and fairly friendly, your 4th amendment rights allow you to refuse any search of your person as long as probable cause is not apparent. In fact, you shouldnever consent to a police search if you have the option to opt out. For all you know, Uncle Bob left an open beer can in the backseat last Sunday and the police are on the lookout to find any violation, no matter how small. Locked glove compartments usually require warrants for the officer to forcibly open, so keep any potentially incriminating items locked away if you really want to mitigate your risks. The rights that you have when there is 'reasonable suspicion' can fall into a grey area, but all you need to remember is the phrase: “I do not waive my 4th amendment rights, and I do not consent to any searches or seizures.”
5. Be Compliant
If the officer requests that you step out of the vehicle, do not refuse. The officer may say that he wants to perform a preliminary search on the exterior of your person to ensure that you are carrying no knives, guns, or any other threatening weapons. Oblige with the officer’s request, but you may verbally refute the search saying something along the lines of “I am not resisting officer, but I will exercise my 4th amendment rights and refuse to give you consent for this search." Make sure you are as respectful as you can with your refusal, and you do not take any physical actions to prevent the search (otherwise, you could receive a resisting arrest/police brutality charge).
If the officer feels something suspicious during this search, they are legally able to reach into that pocket to retrieve it. In this situation, do not attempt to physically stop the officer whatsoever. Instead, you may try and dispute the charges in court, citing a warrantless search as grounds for dismissal (though, this is unlikely).
6. Show Up To Your Court Date!
I can’t tell you how many of my friends have got minor traffic violations and just paid the fine immediately without trying to fight the citation. The fact is, many traffic violations will be completely dismissed because for a slew of different reasons. Show up to your court date and you may be able to get the charges dropped.
If you want us to send you a letter with official Got.Law Rights Cards, send an email with your mailing address to info@Got.Law with the subject line 'RIGHTS CARDS.'