If you get pulled over by the cops
There comes a time in almost every driver’s life when he or she gets pulled over. Even if you are the most cautious driver on the planet–even if you never speed–there’s always a chance that you’ll get pulled over for a headlight you didn’t know was out or some other accidental violation.
If you do, don’t panic.
Keep your hands on the wheel
You may be tempted to start looking for your driver’s license and registration, but don’t dig around in your car yet. Pause and take a deep breath. You’ll need to remain calm, and it’s important to keep your hands where the police officer can see them.
You don’t have to answer their questions, but be respectful
When the officer approaches your car, he or she might start by asking a few simple questions: “Do you know why I stopped you today?” or “How fast do you think you were going?” There is no law that requires you answer these questions. In fact, anything you say can be used against you. So, it’s best to use common sense judgment in the moment and refrain from saying things that could get you in trouble. This includes being rude to the officer. It’s a good idea to be on your best behavior.
You do have to show your driver’s license
The officer will likely ask you for your driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance next. You must show these documents if you are asked for them.
They might pat you down, but you don’t have to consent to a car search
You may be asked to step outside your vehicle. If so, you may be given a pat-down search outside of your clothes. The police are allowed to search you this way, supposedly for their own protection–to check for weapons.
If the police ask to search inside your car, you can tell them “no.” Under the law they cannot search your car unless you give them your consent or until they have something called “probable cause” to believe that you have been involved in criminal activity or there is evidence of a crime in your car.
“Probable cause” is a technical legal term. It means that they have knowledge of enough facts to support a reasonable belief. If they look in the window and see a weapon, for example, that will likely be enough to give them probable cause to search the vehicle.
If things get weird…
If the situation gets uncomfortable, you might be tempted to step on the gas and drive away, but fleeing the officers will only get you in more trouble. So will physically resisting them. The best approach is to ask if you are free to go. If the police say you are free to leave, you’ll want to leave the scene of the encounter right away.
If you have doubts about the way the police have treated you during a traffic stop–or if a traffic stop has gone badly–reaching out to an experienced defense lawyer can be the best way to get answers and guidance.