We have probably all been there--and statistically, some of you have been there much more than the rest of us. Whether absentmindedly, carelessly, accidentally, or purposely, we have all been caught on the roadways doing something we hadn't ought to. But did you know there are some "right" ways as a citizen to handle a traffic stop? And there are some very, very wrong ways as well.
Know the Rule: Keep Your Cool
Traffic stops can be a stressful experience. Let's face it: it almost never happens when you are simply out "Sunday driving" with nowhere to be. If you weren't focused on your destination (or on your very annoying family in the car), you would not have been speeding or ignoring some other rules-of-the-road. However, it is important to remain calm and cooperative during a traffic stop, even if you believe that you have been pulled over unfairly. After all, traffic stops are also very stressful for the officers who pull you over. (My sort-of-distant-cousin-by-marriage Trooper Ben does an excellent job explaining this dynamic.) They never know what awaits them at the side of your car, or at the side of the road.
By following a few tips, you can help to ensure that the stop is conducted safely and that your rights are protected.
What to do when you are pulled over: the basics
Pull Over. This may go without saying, but you need to pull to the side of the road as soon as possible in a safe location. Do not impede traffic by blocking a driveway, side street, or other vehicles. Use your turn signal and pull over to the right side of the road, as far to the side as possible.
Avoid Sudden Movements. A flurry of activity inside the cabin is a major red flag to officers. It might even cause them to be unnecessarily on guard. Therefore, the only places you should direct your hands are (1) blinker, (2) dome or overhead light, (3) window button, (4) back to the steering wheel. If you have passengers, instruct them to remain still.
Turn it Off. Turn off your engine once you have come to a complete stop. If you have not already done so, roll down your window just enough to communicate without yelling and to pass documents back and forth. Keep your hands on the steering wheel in plain view at all times.
Be Polite. Even if you believe you were pulled over in error, the stop will go much easier if you greet the officer with a respectful tone of voice and be as forthcoming as you need to be under the circumstances.
Announce Your Movements. When the officer asks for license, registration, and/or proof of insurance, do not reach for them without saying where you are reaching. This is for your safety and for the officer's safety. For example,
"My license is in my purse. I am going to reach for it in the backseat to retrieve my wallet."
"I believe my insurance card is in the glove compartment, so I am leaning over to open the compartment."
"My insurance card is saved in my phone, which is in my back pocket. Can I reach in my pocket to get it?"
Remain Still. If the officer leaves to run your information in their car, do not shift around or reach for items in the car. Do not try to stash illegal items--you should not have illegal items anyway! You aren't fooling anyone. Just stay still with your hands on the steering wheel and the dome light on until you are free to go.
What about when things get more complicated?
Some scenarios bear explanation--even if you must leave the officer to reach their own conclusions. To a police officer, whether in a small town or out on the highway, an out-of-state plate or a vehicle full of junk can appear suspicious. Statistically, some things that you see as completely normal can spell "suspected trafficker" to an experienced police officer. There is no point getting defensive about it!
You are required to provide information such as who you are, who the vehicle belongs to, and whether you have insurance. But you do not actually have to talk or answer questions! You have a constitutional right to remain silent. That said, once you do choose to speak, you have waived that right. Therefore, do not commit a new offense by lying. If you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to lie about! And if you have done something wrong, why would you confess?
Officers love to ask, "Do you know why I pulled you over?" The only safe answer to this question is a light shrug. A second option, if you absolutely know--you have a broken tail light, you were knowingly speeding more than ten over, you blew through a stop sign you hadn't seen--then you might as well own it. Politeness and humility have gotten more people out of tickets than even low-cut blouses can do. "I apologize, officer, I saw the sign after I was halfway through the intersection. I am just thankful no one was coming from the other direction!" That is an honest answer that takes responsibility for what you both know is true. Still, more often than not, I would recommend the shrug.
Things you should never do include:
X Arguing with the officer. If you disagree with the reason for the stop, you can politely ask the officer to help you understand. You can even [politely] tell them you want to make sure it is clear on their video tape, in case you want to challenge it later. However, do not argue or get angry. Be clear on this: the time to challenge the stop is later--not in the moment.
X Consent to a search of your vehicle without a warrant. If the officer asks to search your vehicle, you have the right to refuse. No matter what the officer says or how they try to convince you, do not say yes to a search. If the officer has probable cause to conduct one, they will tell you so and ask you to step out of the vehicle. You can even clearly state, "I understand you are going to search the vehicle, but I want to be clear that I am not consenting." Then politely do whatever they instruct you to do. Give your attorney a fighting chance in court by NOT consenting.
X Attempt to hide contraband. This may be counterintuitive, but possibly the only way to "hide" contraband is to hope an officer fails to notice it in plain view. If they truly stopped you for a traffic infraction (particularly in broad daylight), they aren't looking for contraband! They just want to give you a ticket. But if you instead start shifting around, shuffling items, getting nervous and acting sketchy, then you are for sure handing them reasons to look for contraband.
What to do if you are arrested
If the officer arrests you, you may ask why you are being arrested and what your rights are. (They may not read you your rights in Kansas unless they intend to question you.) I recommend doing so very politely. You have the right to remain silent--and don't forget that or waive that right. You have the right to have an attorney present during any questioning, and you should make it clear that you want one. Don't get chatty in the police car!
The "one phone call right" is a bit of a myth; however, most police agencies will let you call a loved one, babysitter, or bail bondsman so you do not have to stay hidden away in jail. Contrary to popular belief, they are not looking to arrest people who do not need to be arrested! If you do need to call any of the above, simply let them know who you need to call and why. You may even score multiple calls if you are perceived as cooperative.
If you believe that your rights have been violated during a stop, the time to address it is not during the stop or arrest itself. The time is later. If you believe that your rights have been violated , you can file a complaint with the police department or sheriff's office. You can also contact a civil rights attorney to discuss your legal options. You can have a criminal defense attorney look at the interaction to see whether you have a valid defense.
Again, I must advise that you not waive any rights: these are there to protect you. "I decline to answer any questions without an attorney present."
Recap of tips for staying calm during a traffic stop
Take a deep breath and remind yourself that it is important to remain calm and cooperative for your safety.
Focus on the officer's instructions and follow them carefully.
Avoid making any sudden movements or gestures.
If you feel yourself getting upset, take a few deep breaths and try to relax. If you feel anxious with police or have a disorder such as PTSD, let the officer know this.
If you are in a high-risk group--and you will know if you are--or if you are generally anxious about police interactions for any reason, consider installing and using a service like TurnSignl, now available in all 50 states. This is akin to driving around with an on-demand lawyer in your car to help everyone get home safe.
By following these tips, you can help to ensure that a traffic stop is conducted safely and that your rights are protected. If you are arrested, it is important to remain silent and to ask for an attorney. If you believe that your rights have been violated, you can file a complaint with the police department or sheriff's office, or you can contact an attorney.