Traffic stops are much in the news lately, and most of the news is tragic. The Sandra Bland traffic stop footage showed in disturbing detail how quickly a traffic stop can escalate out of control. A traffic stop also presents a dangerous situation to the officer making the stop, so even routine encounters have an element of tension.
You should be prepared for a possible encounter with police while you are driving. It is almost inevitable that it will happen. Here is the Collins & Associates guide to traffic stops. First, a couple of pointers:
- Remember that on the roadside, the officer always has the upper hand. Make up your mind to be courteous and respectful, no matter what kind of attitude the officer gives you. The officer controls the narrative. You can protect your rights without giving the officer any reason to escalate. Save the arguments for court.
- Make a good first impression. Signal, then pull over in a controlled manner. Know where your license, registration, and insurance documents are, but do not get them out, because it may look to the officer like you are moving around in the car to hide contraband or a weapon. Turn your car off. Sit there with both hands on the steering wheel. Do not say anything until spoken to. Saying “the light was yellow,” or “I only had two beers” is probably not the best way to start off the encounter.
Now, some FAQs:
- Can the officer make me get out of my car? Yes. According to a US Supreme Court case called Mimms, the officer is allowed to have driver and passengers get out of the vehicle.
- Do I have to answer questions? If the officer suspects you of committing an offense, he is allowed to ask your name, address, and “business abroad,” which is legal speak for “where are you headed tonight?” Beyond that, you do not have to answer any questions, such as “anything in the car I need to know about,?” “have you been drinking tonight,?” or “do you know how fast you were going?”
- What if the officer did not read me my rights? This is a question we get all the time, and it comes from inaccuracies in TV portrayals. Miranda rights only apply to custodial interrogations—they are the right to remain silent and the right to counsel during questioning. Traff stops are not custodial, so Miranda does not apply—unless you get taken into custody and the officer wants to question you.
- Can the officer search me? The officer is allowed to do a brief patdown of outer clothing—IF the officer has reason to believe you are armed. Otherwise, no—not without a warrant or probable cause to search.
- Can the officer search my car? The officer can search your car if he has a warrant. He can search your car if you give consent. And he can search your car if he has probable cause—a legal concept that can be contested in court later. For example, there is a plain view doctrine. If the officer sees something in the car or smells marijuana, that may give probable cause for a search. Consent: you do not ever have to give consent to search your car. If you refuse, he may claim he had probable cause, but that will be something he has to prove in court.
- How long can the stop take? The officer can check your registration, license, and insurance for validity, and he can run your information for outstanding warrants. Then he can give you a traffic ticket. Prolonging the stop any further than is necessary to accomplish these items requires the officer to have legitimate suspicion of a separate crime. The unreasonable extension of a traffic stop is something we litigate in court.
- Should I record the encounter on my phone? There is nothing prohibiting you from doing so, and it is good protection. Some police cars have videocameras and microphones, some do not. But use common sense. If recording the stop is making the officer agitated, and he asks you to stop recording, we would recommend you stop recording, especially if his request is already recorded. There is no point in antagonizing the officer. NOTE: if you find yourself in the back of a police car, keep in mind you are probably being recorded. So saying something like, “I hope he doesn’t find the drugs in the spare tire” to yourself is probably not a good idea. This actually happened in one of our recent cases.
If you have any questions about traffic stops not discussed here, please contact us by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org .