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Monday, June 20, 2011

What Should I Do During a Traffic Stop?

"You're a lawyer, right?  What should I do if I get pulled over by a cop?  Do I have to sign the ticket?  Do I have to get out of the car if the cop asks me to?"  I can't begin to keep track of the number of dinner conversations that begin this way when someone learns what I do for a living.  I can't say I blame them, we've all had those experiences with being pulled over and not being quite sure what to say or do in a traffic stop.  We often think we can talk our way out of a ticket, and just start blabbing away to the cop.  From an attorney's persepective though, talking uncontrollably to the cop is probably one of the worst things you can do.

A traffic stop is a detention by a police officer.  It is intended to be brief and to last no longer than it takes to write out the traffic citation (keep in mind that writing the citation includes checking your proof of insurance and car registration as well as the protocol of running your name through their database to make sure you do not have any warrants for your arrest).  Once the ticket is written and handed to you, there's no reason you should continue to be detained and you should be free to leave.

Here are some brief, helpful tips to keep in mind if you ever find yourself pulled over by the officer:

-When you see the lights or hear the siren behind you and you realize the officer wants to pull you over, you should pull over as soon as it becomes safe to do so.  Sometimes you're on a fast highway and there isn't any space on the side of the road, or it's a dark and poorly lit area and you don't feel safe.  That's fine, just turn on your turn signal and slow down your speed so the officer knows you are aware of his/her intent to pull you over and is assured you intend to do so, then stop at the closest exit or business or residential area.  You don't want the officer to think you intend to flee or engage in a chase, so do what you can to minimize that perception.  Fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer is a crime, so don't do anything like accelerate the car to give the officer reason to arrest you for that once you've been pulled over.

-Remain polite and as calm as you can.  You may be running late or otherwise in a hurry to go somewhere but being argumentative or acting nervous will only raise the officer's suspicions that something else besides an expired tag is going on and you'll be kept on the side of the road longer.

-If the officer asks if he/she can search your car, you should polititely say no.  There's absolutely nothing wrong with saying no and refusing consent to search your car.  A general rule is that police need a warrant to search your car without your consent (there's some exceptions such as the car reaking of burnt marijuana, etc., but I won't go into those exceptions here).  You may be thinking "I have nothing to hide in the car, why not let him search the car and get on his good side?".  Maybe you're right and you have nothing to hide.  However, what if someone who borrowed your car left something behind?  Maybe your mom left her prescription pill bottle in your car when she went to the pharmacy, and if the officer finds a controlled substance in the car and you don't have a prescription for it, then you have a boatload of problems including a felony arrest for possession of a controlled substance.  You may be laughing and thinking that doesn't really happen, but believe me that it does.  I've seen it, and I've defended it.  And why put yourself through that embarrasing arrest and trip to the jail?  When it comes to requests to search the car, I politely tell officers that I have a policy of not allowing anyone to search my car without a warrant.

-Likewise, the police usually need a warrant to search you or your pockets, etc..  So, you have a right to refuse consent to a search of yourself.  This can get tricky because sometimes the line gets blurry between a request and an order from a law enforcement officer.  An officer with a gun on his/her holster saying "place both hands on the hood of your car so I can make sure you don't have any weapons, please" doesn't sound much like a request.  You can ask the officer if that's an order or a request and let the offier know that you do not consent to a search of yourself without a warrant.

- A lot of us keep our proof of insurance and registration in our glove compartments.  A driver suddenly reaching for the glove compartment can make an officer jumpy (he/she doesn't know if you intend to grab a weapon, etc.).  If an officer asks you for your registration and you keep it in the glove compartment, it's a good idea to let the officer know that's where you have your documents before you reach for the glove compartment.  It also means that if you have anything in your car you do not want an officer to see, you should not keep it in the same place you keep your proof of insurance/car registration. For gun owners out there who travel with their guns in the glove compartment, let the officer know you have a permit to carry a concealed firearm and show it to him/her before you open the glvoebox with the gun.  Very few things will make the tension level of a traffic stop skyrocket like the unexpected appearance of a gun.

- There's a misconception out there that signing a traffic ticket admits guilt.  If the cop gives you a ticket and asks for your signature, you must sign it if you want to avoid going to jail. Your signature on the ticket is simply a promise that you will either pay the ticket or appear in court to contest it.  It's not an admission of guilt, and your signature is mandatory.

-Now what if you are riding a bike, can you you be pulled over?  Yes, you can.  Most of the traffic laws also apply to bicyclists as well as motor vehicle drivers.  For purposes of the statutes (i.e. the laws), a bicycle is considered a vehicle, so act accordingly and stop pedaling if an officer is trying to pull you over.

I'll cover DUI traffic stops on another blog post since there's much more involved.

In closing, I wish I could say that traffic stops are pleasant and that all officers are respectful and professional and that you have no reason to worry as long as you follow my tips.  But that's just wishful thinking on my part.  Some officers will frisk you and search your car for no good reason and without your consent because they want to see if they can make a drug bust, or they'll pull you over and accuse you of going 103 mph on the turnpike when you were going 75 mph.  In those situations, be as polite as you can while articulating your lack of consent.  It may result in a bum traffic ticket or being kept on the side of the road for 45 minutes.  But at least you will avoid arrest for not letting the injustice of the situation get to your temper and emotions.  You can dispute the ticket or make a formal complaint against the officer, or any number of remedies after you are allowed to leave.  But you'll spare yourself the arrest, bail money, and expense of hiring a lawyer.

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