A Guide To Traffic Stops

For those of us who’ve had many a run-in with the local police officers via traffic stop – or being pulled over, for those who aren’t familiar with the term – we know that they aren’t just general annoyances (I mean, who likes getting caught doing something they aren’t supposed to?); sometimes they can be downright scary, especially if you’ve never gotten pulled over before.

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When this happens, many of us just go along with whatever the officer says to avoid conflict (because conflict with an officer of the law can land us somewhere none of us really want to be, for obvious reasons). What many people don’t know, however, is that we have rights we may exercise during such an encounter, and sometimes knowing these rights can help tremendously if we get stopped by an officer who may be on a particularly bad power trip, and just want to bust someone for something – anything – to make their record look better. They aren’t all power-hungry – in fact, most of them are only doing their job, and are there to help – but some are, and knowing your rights is important to deal with them in a respectful, safe manner for all involved.

Probable Cause

Believe it or not, police can’t just pull people over all willy-nilly. They have to actually have a reason to suspect you’re up to something to pull you over or search your vehicle. If you’re breaking a law of the road – speeding, for example – they will use this to pull you over, and as they conduct the stop, look for something else to pin on you: You weren’t wearing a seat belt, you have alcohol or drug paraphernalia in the vehicle, etc.

Pull Over Safely

When an officer has those brilliant blue lights on behind you, it’s not absolutely required to pull over immediately if you can not do so safely. Say they pull you over for speeding on a back road, and the only safe place to pull you over is a gas station two minutes down the road. In this scenario, and others like it – maybe you’re on the middle lane on the interstate and nobody is letting you over, that’s another example for reference – you have every right to wait until you feel safe pulling over. If this is the case, you should notify the officer via hand signal or hazard light, drive the speed limit, and pull over when you can. Remember, though; the sooner you pull over, the better. Taking too long (for instance, if you’ve passed a dozen places you could have pulled over and are just dragging it out unnecessarily) will likely upset the officer, and you can get more tickets than you originally would have.

Avoid Unnecessary Actions

When you finally pull over, do not make any unnecessary movements. Do not frantically dig through your glove compartment or cram something under your seat. You don’t want the officer to be more suspicious of you and think you are reaching for a weapon or something dangerous. Do not take out your driver’s license unless the officer asks you to do so. Just roll down your window, place your hands on your steering wheel, and remain calm. 

Stay In Your Vehicle

You have every right to stay in your vehicle if an officer asks you to step out – or ask for probable cause before agreeing to step out of your car. Sometimes this will upset the officer, and refusing to do so if they provide you with a reason for it looks bad on you to the officer, so it’s important to pick your battles with this one. However, if you are afraid or unsure of what they are telling you, it is within your right to stay right where you are.

Refuse A Breathalyzer

While it’s never a good idea to refuse to take a breathalyzer (it implies guilt to most officers, and they will usually treat it as an admission of DUI), you can legally refuse to take a breathalyzer test. In some states, however, such as New York, they have a statute called “Implied Consent”…which basically means that, upon getting your license, you immediately agree to a breathalyzer when you get pulled over. Keep in mind, however, that if you refuse and an officer has probable cause of drug use, they can take you into custody anyway for analysis or blood testing.

Vehicle Search

If you’ve been pulled over and an officer demands they search your vehicle without a warrant, you may absolutely refuse. Without probable cause, an officer is only permitted to search your vehicle without a permit for five reasons:

  • Consent, meaning you agreed to let them search your car;
  • Plain view, meaning they can see clearly from outside the vehicle what they are searching your vehicle for;
  • “Search incident to arrest,” meaning they arrested you with a probable cause – after the arrest, they can search your vehicle;
  • If they have probable cause to suspect a crime – for example, while it isn’t legal to have blood in the car or a black eye, but both in conjunction are suspicious to a cop;
  • “Exigent circumstances,” meaning they have probable cause of a crime, and suspect the evidence of the said crime is about to be destroyed, they can break the rules and search without a warrant.

This should be obvious, but in the event that they do have a warrant, you absolutely have to let them search your vehicle – however, there are some limits to the areas they can search. For instance, if they believe you have a gun in your vehicle, they are not allowed to search in areas too small to hold it; i.e. the glovebox can be searched, but not the sunglass visor or the cigarette lighter port.

Cooperate

One of the most important things to do when you’re being pulled over by an officer is to cooperate, but don’t forget your rights. The thing is police officers have a highly dangerous job and many get killed during traffic stops, which is why many of them appear hostile. Show respect and remain cordial. Let the officer do the talking, and keep your answers brief. Do not try to argue, explain or apologize. 

Many officers may seem as though they will just let you off if you answer their questions. Be wary, and be careful not to talk too much as you may say something incriminating. You can also choose not to answer some questions because silence is not an admission of guilt. Your silence cannot be used against you in court. 

What to Do When You Receive a Traffic Ticket

If you receive a traffic ticket, you can either settle it or fight it by going to trial. However, both will leave points on record which can cause your insurance rates to go up or license suspension. What you can do is to plead guilty and dismiss a ticket by going to traffic school, which also allows you to hide points on your driver record. Remember, though, that certain violations such as misdemeanors cannot be dismissed. Also, you have to confirm with your court handler if they will accept traffic school to dismiss your ticket. 

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