Know Your Rights—Traffic Stop Edition

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This is the first article in an ongoing “Know Your Rights” series.
Thousands of motorists are stopped by police every day. Chances are, no matter how law abiding of a driver you are, you’ve probably seen the lights flash in your rearview mirror at least once and had to pull over. What follows once you pull over varies enormously. Usually, you’ll provide the necessary documentation to the officer, have a brief exchange about why you were stopped, and be given a citation before you move along with your day. Sometimes, the officer might simply allow you to leave after this brief exchange. Other times, however, what starts as a simple traffic stop escalates into a more serious situation. It's important to understand your rights and responsibilities when police stop you while driving. This knowledge can help prevent traffic stops from escalating into more problematic situations for you, and it will help make the stop safer for everyone involved.

WHEN CAN POLICE STOP YOU WHILE DRIVING?

The short answer—anytime. And for (practically) any reason. The law gives police enormous discretion and authority to stop vehicles temporarily. They only need “reasonable suspicion” that you have committed a crime or traffic violation. In practice, this means that almost every time you get in a car, you could be legitimately pulled over. Didn’t use your turn signal when you changed lanes? Didn’t turn on your turn signal early enough? Driving closely to someone in front of you? Was that a bit of a swerve there? You get the idea. Anytime you drive, you likely give the police “reasonable suspicion” that you committed a traffic violation. What’s more is that the police may use any reasonable suspicion of a violation as pretext to stop a vehicle. So the police can say they pulled you over because you didn’t properly signal even if the real reason is that they think you committed some other crime and are hoping to talk to you to investigate.

EASE THE TRAFFIC STOP TENSION

It’s important to remember that the police have incredibly difficult and dangerous jobs. When they pull someone over for a traffic stop, they have no idea who or what they might encounter. So it is helpful to empathize with that perspective and conduct yourself in a way to ease the officer’s tension.

First, as soon as you see that the officer is trying to stop you, immediately brake and signal to pull over. These simple, swift actions indicate that you are complying and submitting to their authority right away. The more seconds that go by after the officer puts on his lights before you indicate that you are submitting, the more anxious the officer might become and the more reason you are giving him to suspect you may have committed a crime.

Second, it’s a good idea to have your hands on the steering wheel so they are visible when the officer approaches you.

Finally, always converse respectfully. You need not divulge every detail in your answers to the officer’s questions, but it is helpful to use a respectful and calm tone when talking to the officer.

BE TRUTHFUL—BUT GO EASY ON THE DETAILS

Remember that the police are trained to elicit confessions and evidence. The first question you will often be asked is “Do you know why I pulled you over?” Often, drivers will respond in the form of a confession. While you should ALWAYS be truthful when communicating with the police—doing otherwise may be a crime—you do NOT have to confess.

It’s usually best to give simple answers without elaborating on details. Details can be used against you later if you end up being charged with a crime. A simple “I’m not sure” is an appropriate response.

COOPERATE AND HOPEFULLY YOU’LL BE ON YOUR WAY

Easing the tension of a traffic stop, being respectful, and cooperating with the officer typically ensures that the stop is a relatively painless experience for everyone involved. Of course, driving safely and abiding by the law is the best way to avoid traffic stops in the first place. But if you find yourself pulled over, cooperation is the best policy.

Stay tuned for our next Know Your Rights post on what to do if a stop is escalated and the officer asks to search you or your vehicle or begins interrogating you about a potential crime. If you have any questions then please contact me here.

Written by Rob Ianuario

Although I was not born into the legal profession, I chose to go to law school and became an attorney in 2008. With the encouragement of many established attorneys, I started my Greenville, SC law practice in 2010. I am the son of an engineer with strong ties to the automotive industry and collector cars. I have even worked as a BMW mechanic in Munich, Germany. Weather and court permitting, I am proud to drive a 1931 Model A Ford on a regular basis.
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