How to Act in a Traffic Stop

Given the recent and widely-publicized incidents of police violence against citizens involved in basic traffic stops, it would be helpful to educate yourself as much as possible on the legalities of traffic stops, as well as good advice on how to behave if you are stopped.

First, before you can be stopped, a police officer must have reasonable suspicion before pulling you over. In other words, there must be a good reason, and they cannot stop you simply because you are driving an ugly car in a really expensive neighborhood. But the burden is not that much – if you are driving with a taillight out, speeding, or even if you fail to signal a turn, they can stop you for failure to obey regular traffic laws.

Once they stop you, ensure you are in an area that is well-lit, or even fairly well-traveled. If you are ever uncertain that it is a police office, call 9-1-1 and they can confirm if an officer is attempting to stop you. Turn off the vehicle, and roll down your window. Keep your hands on the steering wheel and do not move. Likely, the office will ask to see your driver’s license and proof of insurance. Tell them if you are reaching for anything in your vehicle, and if you keep a firearm anywhere, inform them promptly, particularly if it’s in your glove box with your insurance. A good rule of thumb is to stay calm and not escalate the situation.

Know your rights. There are a few things an officer can ask you to do during a traffic stop: Get out of the vehicle. Give your driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance. There are a few other things an officer cannot ask you to do. You are allowed to record the interaction, so he or she cannot tell you to stop recording, unless it is impinging on their ability to effectively investigate. An officer also cannot search your car unless you consent to it, or if they have probable cause. That means, they have evidence that you are in involved in illegal activity. For example, if they smell marijuana strongly, that would be enough to allow them to legally search. If they ask you, do not feel pressured to consent. If they have probable cause, they will search anyway. Always politely consent verbally. If they frisk you, do not resist physically – this will escalate the situation and could lead to an altercation. Simply say, loudly and clearly, something like, “Officer, I understand you’re trying to do your job, but I do not consent to this search.” Additionally, you do not have to answer any questions under the fifth amendment, but you should always be polite. If an officer asks you a question like, ‘do you know why I am pulling you over,’ you can always say, ‘No.’ Additionally, you can assert your 5th amendment rights by simply saying, “I do not wish to answer that question and reserve my rights under the 5th amendment.” You always have the ability to determine if you are being detained or if you are free to leave. You can do this by simply asking “Are you detaining me, or am I free to go?” Officers are required to have a reason to keep you in a location and deprive you of your freedom of movement. If they are not detaining you, then you can leave.

Above all, you must act calmly, politely and slowly. Never physically resist an officer. Never yell or curse one out. And never reach for something without first informing the officer that you need to retrieve your wallet, cell phone, or the like. Know your rights, and act as if you’re talking to your grandmother (politely), even if they do not extend the same courtesy to you. Do your best not to escalate the situation, and always remember your rights.

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