Jan. 7, 2015 – According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the most common contact with police involves traffic stops. Most traffic stops are routine and end in either a warning or some form of citation for a traffic violation. However, a significant percentage of criminal charges arise out of what begins as a routine traffic stop.
Officers who are suspicious of criminal activity may ask to search the vehicle, ask incriminating questions, and arrest you for a crime the officer knew nothing about when he or she first made the traffic stop.
The following suggestions will help drivers (and the attorneys who represent them) avoid more serious charges and have the best outcomes when stopped by police.
Considering police sometimes investigate more serious crimes during traffic stops, this article also suggests how to best respond to police questioning.
Before the Officer Approaches
Once a police vehicle is attempting to pull you over, slow down. Slowing down will signal to the officer that you are aware your vehicle is being pulled over.
Once you are slowed down, look on the right for a wide shoulder or parking lot to pull into. Most officers appreciate drivers who pull over to a location where they can safely approach the vehicle.
After safely pulled over, try not to move around inside the vehicle. You should turn off the radio, and you may also want to pull out a phone and begin recording the stop, assuming it is within arm’s reach.
However, you should not unbuckle your seat belt, open the glove box for your registration, or reach under the seat for any reason. Officers watch for movement in the front seat of the vehicle because sometimes drivers will reach for a weapon or hide other illegal substances known as “contraband.”
Such movement may constitute “probable cause” that evidence of a crime is in your vehicle, which would allow the officer to search the vehicle without your consent. As much as possible, keep your hands on the steering wheel, in sight of the police officer.
Talking with the Officer
After the officer approaches your vehicle, wait until he or she speaks before saying anything yourself. This means, for example, you should not be apologizing for speeding as the officer approaches your window. The officer will likely ask for your license, insurance card, and registration – and you should produce them when they are requested.
The police officer will also likely ask questions. You should never make a statement in response to police questioning which admits your guilt. Keep answers noncommittal, and simply acknowledge the statements from police rather than agreeing.
For example, if a police officer tells you, “I clocked you going forty-seven in a thirty-five back there,” you should say, “I see” or “I understand,” rather than agreeing or admitting that you were, in fact, speeding.
Similarly, if an officer asks you, “Do you know why I pulled you over?” the answer should always be “No,” even if you are aware that you were speeding or that you have contraband in the vehicle. Officers will record your statements of guilt for use later in court if they are required to testify. In this case, it is simply the best course not to admit guilt.
Clarify, Comply, and Fight the Stop
While communicating with the police officer, it is possible he or she will ask you to do certain things. You will have to give over your license and registration, and will likely have to respond to several questions about your driving, the proper responses to which are discussed above. However, police on a traffic stop are not only looking for traffic violations; they are also looking for evidence of more serious crimes with which they can charge you, including if you are intoxicated, if you have any illegal weapons, or if you have drugs or other contraband.
It is impossible for anyone, even an attorney, to remember all of the laws relating to criminal investigation while sitting in the front seat of a car facing a police officer. Instead, when responding to any questions or orders from police officers beyond the basic traffic stop questions, it is best to use these three steps: 1) clarify; 2) comply; and 3) fight the stop in court.
Clarify. Most people are used to obeying police officer instructions, and police officers count on this to get you to do things at a traffic stop that they can only do with your permission. The biggest example of this is asking to search your vehicle.
Whether or not an officer can search your vehicle is a complex legal question, relating to whether the officer has “probable cause” to believe evidence of a crime is inside the vehicle. Sitting there, facing the officer on the side of the road, it will not be possible to determine if the officer can legally search the car without your consent. While it may seem like giving consent at the scene and trying to be helpful will get you into less trouble, it is actually the fastest way to get into more trouble.
Therefore, if the officer asks, “Can I search your vehicle?” the answer should always be “No” or “No, I do not consent to you searching my vehicle.” If, however, the officer says, “I’m going to search your vehicle,” or “I’m going to look in your trunk, okay?” ask the officer calmly and politely if you must comply. Say something like, “Do you need my permission to search?” or “Do I have to comply?” Generally, if the officer needs permission to search, these statements will prevent that search from occurring, protecting your rights.
Comply. If the officer says you must comply, you should follow the officer’s orders. If the officer searches your car without consent, then he or she is going to have to prove at some point later that the search was justified under the law.
If the officer orders you to wait on the side of the road or in the squad car, you should do that, too. Regardless of what the officer orders, the best course of action is always to comply with the officer. You are not going to win an argument about what the police officer can or cannot do at the scene of the stop and, if you argue enough, you might even get arrested and charged with additional crimes.
Remember, this applies only to orders for you to take some action. Do not let an officer intimidate you into admitting guilt. Remain calm, comply with orders, and stay silent as much as possible.
Fight The Stop in Court. If the traffic stop results in a citation, discovery of contraband, or arrest, the best course of action is to hire an attorney. If arrested, ask for a lawyer as soon as you are read your Miranda rights, and do not waive any of your rights. If police or other persons ask to speak with you about your case, repeat that you want to speak with a lawyer. Wait to discuss your case with your attorney. An attorney will be able to advise you and develop a strategy to fight the charges against you.