Traffic Stops: Common Reasons, What To Do If You Are Stopped, Your RightsUpdated Oct. 20, 2020
State law enforcement officers have the power to issue written traffic citations to any person committing a moving or non-moving traffic violation. A traffic cop or another law enforcement officer may indicate that they wish you to pull over, if they believe you have violated a traffic law.
Nearly all motorists are stopped by a law enforcement officer sooner or later. If this happens to you, it is most likely because you have committed a moving traffic violation. You may not believe you have done anything wrong but keep in mind that most traffic violations are committed unknowingly. Whatever the reason, you must comply with the law enforcement officer and pull over when they indicate that you must stop.
Common reasons for being stopped
There are many reasons why law enforcement officers pull drivers over; if you see flashing lights behind your vehicle, do not automatically assume that you are “in trouble”. It may be that the officer has spotted a potentially dangerous vehicle malfunction. For example:
- A broken or weak headlight
- A broken or weak taillight
- Visibly low tire pressure
- The trunk of the vehicle is not properly shut
If you are being pulled over for committing a traffic violation, it will probably be one of the following:
- Texting or speaking on a cell phone while driving
- Passing in an unsafe manner
- Executing a prohibited turn
- Weaving within your lane
- Not wearing a seat belt
Law enforcement officers may also pull you over if they suspect your involvement in illegal activity or that your vehicle is improperly licensed and registered. For instance:
- Your vehicle registration has expired
- One or both your license plates are missing
- Your vehicle fits the description of a vehicle used in a crime
- You fit the description of a person who has committed a crime
What to do if you are stopped by police
It will be obvious when a law enforcement officer wishes you to pull over, as they will activate their flashing blue or red lights while following you. Keep in mind that unmarked police vehicles may only be equipped with a red flashing light – you still need to pull over for unmarked vehicles. When you notice that you are being stopped, do not panic. Remember that traffic enforcement officers are there to maintain the safety and comfort of all road users, yourself included.
Acknowledge the officer’s presence and indicate that you intend to comply, by activating your right turn signal. You should do this as promptly as possible even if you cannot immediately pull over, otherwise the officer may be concerned about your intentions.
At the next safe opportunity, move your vehicle to the right and pull over away from the flow of traffic.
If you are driving at night, switch on the car’s interior light. If your windows are tinted, roll them down as soon as you have stopped.
Remain in the car and leave your hands on the steering wheel as the officer approaches.
Be polite and comply with the officer’s instructions.
If you are pulling over in an area which the law enforcement officer considers to be unsafe – such as on a bridge or busy stretch of roadway – they may use their loudspeaker system to guide you to a different location.
Driver safety when being pulled over
Motorists must remember that law enforcement officers put their lives on the line to protect members of the public every day. Police officers do not know who is in the vehicle they are pulling over or what danger those persons may pose. You must adhere to proper procedure and avoid taking any action which could be deemed as threatening, by following these rules:
DO NOT take your hands off the steering wheel until the officer indicates that you may.
DO NOT dig around in the glove compartment, car door, your purse or anywhere else searching for your license and registration documents. The police officer may think that you are reaching for a weapon or attempting to conceal something.
DO NOT have anything in your hands while they are resting on the steering wheel, even your cell, as the police officer may mistake it for a weapon.
DO NOT get out of the vehicle unless asked to do so by the officer.
DO tell the officer if you are traveling with any type of weapon. It is better for the office to be aware of the presence of a gun immediately, rather than discovering one unexpectedly. Avoid keeping a handgun in your glove compartment.
DO ask permission from the officer to look for your documents in the glove compartment or anywhere else not in plain view.
DO be respectful and cooperative. It will make the experience far less stressful for yourself and the police officer.
What happens if you do not believe the person pulling you over is a real police officer? Do not worry, there are steps you can take to ensure your safety without aggravating the law enforcement officer or unduly increasing your chances of being arrested. Never flee from a police officer attempting to pull you over. Instead:
- Activate your hazard lights and drop your speed to below the posted speed limit (this is also the action you should take if you intend to comply but do not believe you can safely pull over in current road or traffic conditions.)
- You may proceed to an area with better lighting and/or more people around if you feel safer, having indicated your intention to comply.
- Call 9-1-1 if you feel it is necessary to check the police officer’s identity. Make sure the police officer shows you a valid ID. Be patient with the call operator as it may take time to identify the officer who has stopped you.
Getting a ticket for a traffic violation
When a law enforcement officer pulls your vehicle over, they will explain their reason for stopping you. If you are being cited for committing a traffic violation, the officer will issue you a ticket. Irrespective of the reason you are being issued a ticket, remember this phrase:
Comply now, contest later.
Do not argue with the police officer if you do not agree with the citation, as you will have the opportunity to dispute the matter via the proper channels later. You must sign your ticket to show that you will respond to the infraction by accepting or disputing it. Signing your ticket does not mean you are admitting guilt.
When the police officer indicates that you may leave, signal your intention to merge back into the appropriate lane of traffic and proceed with caution.
Your rights during a traffic stop
Traffic stops are generally less stressful and run more smoothly, when you understand what is expected of you and know your rights. There are a lot of common misconceptions regarding rights during a traffic stop, plus some subtle variations between the laws in different states, so let’s clear things up.
Your right to remain silent. The “right to remain silent” does not only apply when being arrested. Members of the public have the right to remain silent during any interaction with a police officer. Keep in mind that you are always required to provide your license, registration and proof of insurance when requested during routine traffic stops. You do not have to say anything while presenting this documentation, though you should ask the police officer if you need to open the glove compartment or search elsewhere for these items.
In some states, drivers are legally obligated to answer questions regarding their identity during a traffic stop. Find out whether this is relevant in your state by looking up the issue in your driver’s handbook. Whether you are legally required to state your name, address or any other identifying information, it is best to provide these details and comply with the officer as fully as possible. Making the police officer’s job more difficult by refusing to speak will leave them less inclined to be lenient with you.
Drivers should note that it is an offense to lie when identifying oneself or to refuse to identify oneself when being placed under arrest.
Your right to know why you have been stopped. Law enforcement officers must have a valid reason to pull over a member of the public. This is known as “probable cause” and could be a broken taillight, speeding or any similar reason which means investigating you or your vehicle is warranted. You have a right to know this reason and police officers are legally obligated to tell you. Do not be afraid to ask if they have not made the reason for the stop clear.
Your right to film or record. It is completely legal to film or record any interaction you have with law enforcement officers, including routine traffic stops. Many law enforcement agencies equip their officers with body cameras to monitor interactions with the public. However, you are perfectly entitled to film your interaction with the officer if you feel they are not following procedure and you may later need the video or audio evidence. This law applies in every state.
Your right to refuse a search. A law enforcement officer may only search your vehicle if: they can see something illegal in plain view; they have probable cause that a crime has been committed (most traffic violations are misdemeanors or infractions, not crimes) or if you consent to the vehicle search. Otherwise, they need a warrant to carry out the search without your permission. If an officer insists on searching your vehicle without your consent, it is best to allow the search and take the matter up with the proper authorities later. In this instance, the officer may force you to allow the search if they believe they have probable cause.
Can you refuse to get out of the vehicle? You must get out of your vehicle when asked during a traffic stop, though you can ask the officer to state their reasoning. Police officers must have “reasonable suspicion” that you are up to no good, before asking you to step out of your vehicle. If they suspect you are concealing a weapon or are driving under the influence, they may ask you to get out of the car. Always comply under such circumstances, as refusing to step out of the vehicle may look suspicious and could land you in more trouble.
Can you refuse to take a breathalyzer test? In signing your driver’s license, you have already consented to your blood-alcohol level being tested – this is called “implied consent”. It means that motorists are effectively consenting to any future breathalyzer tests when they sign their driver’s licenses. In some states, implied consent refers specifically to breathalyzer tests while in others, it refers to breathalyzer tests or blood tests. In this latter situation, you may refuse a roadside breathalyzer in favor of having a blood test. Though, doing so would be pointless and would only make your life more difficult.
Filing a complaint or a compliment
You may file a complaint against a police officer if you believe you were mistreated during a traffic stop. The contact details and other information necessary to make the complaint can usually be found on the citation given to you by the officer. Alternatively, the local transportation authorities will be able to help you – check the DMV website.
Motorists may also use this avenue to submit a “compliment” if they feel the officer’s behavior during the stop was exemplary. Complaints and compliments assist law enforcement agencies in training officers, monitoring bad behavior and rewarding good behavior.
How to handle your traffic citation
If you are cited for committing a traffic violation, it is not necessary to take any further action right away. Within a few weeks, you should receive a letter from the courts which will explain how to handle the ticket. You may either:
- Agree that you committed the violation and accept the punishment (most often a fine or points against your license).
- Request a court hearing to dispute the citation i.e. plead not guilty.
If you choose to plead not guilty, you will be required to present your evidence in court. The police officer who issued the citation will also be called upon to give evidence.
Penalties for evading a police officer
Evading a police officer is a serious offense. Never refuse to stop or attempt to evade a police officer by speeding up when they indicate they wish to pull you over. You may not have knowingly committed an infraction or crime so far, however you will be doing exactly that by refusing to stop.
Penalties for evading a police officer are different around the United States, though they are strict from coast to coast. Let’s look at California as an example:
Offense: Refusing to stop your vehicle when asked by a police officer.
Penalty: Imprisonment for up to one year in county jail.
Offense: Causing serious bodily injury to any person while attempting to evade a police officer.
Penalty: Imprisonment for three, five or seven years in a state prison OR up to one year in county jail OR A fine of $2,000 or more which does not exceed $10,000 OR both a fine and imprisonment.
Offense: Killing any person while attempting to evade the police.
Penalty: Imprisonment for four, six or ten years in state prison.
Similar fines and penalties will likely apply in your state. Your driver’s manual should have a section reserved for this information – make sure you read through it! Above all else, remember that evading or refusing to comply with a police officer only ever makes the situation worse for everybody involved.
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