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Police Traffic Stops and Vehicle Searches: FAQs

Here are some answers to a few of the most commonly asked questions regarding police traffic stops and vehicle searches.

What is the best thing I can do if I am pulled over by the police?

It will probably happen to all of as at one time or another. You are driving along and see the flashing lights of a police car in the rearview mirror. Thoughts start racing through your mind, is the police officer after me or the car in front of me? Did I run that red light; I thought it was still yellow? What exactly is the speed limit here? Regardless, if the police officer indicates that he wants you to pull your vehicle over, that is exactly what you should do. Make sure it is safe to change lanes over to the side, and don't move so suddenly as to put you or another driver at risk. Signal and show the officers that you are trying to stop for them.

Once you do stop, don't make any sudden movements that may give thoughts to the police officer of weapons or other illegal activity. Turn the inside lights on inside your vehicle, turn off the ignition and leave your hands on the steering wheel. Only start getting documents from the glove compartment after being directed to do so by the officer. You don't want him to think that you are reaching for a weapon or to conceal drugs.

During your conversation with the officer, try to stay as calm and polite as possible. A good first line is always, "what seems to be the problem, officer?" Like taking a pass/fail course, you want to be as average as possible; don't do anything that will make you stand out in the officer's mind. In addition, it is never a good idea to try to argue with the police officer or get angry. Getting angry will only make your situation worse because the police officer will want to make sure that you get the biggest fine possible. One thing to keep in mind is to never admit to anything. You don't have to argue with the police officer, merely state that you are not sure how fast you were going, or that you couldn't remember if the light was yellow or red. Anything that you admit to will be used in court against you and the chances of successfully fighting your ticket will be diminished.

If you can, make small talk with the officer. Keep in mind that the police officer is only doing his job. If you can make their day better with a few good jokes or put a smile on their face, they may be more inclined to let you off with a warning rather than write you a ticket.

Can my car be searched if I get pulled over?

In general, yes. There are three basic ways in which an officer has the authority to conduct vehicle searches after a traffic stop. The first is consent. Most often if a police officer wants to search your car, he will ask you if it's okay. There is no obligation to say yes. You, in fact, can remain silent and consent cannot be implied from silence. If you do say yes, however, the police officer has the authority to search your entire car.

The next possible justification for vehicle searches is reasonable suspicion. If the police officer thinks that you are concealing something dangerous or illegal, he is allowed to perform a search of the car. Depending upon your state, this search may include places like a locked glove compartment or the trunk of your car. All the officer needs is a hunch that your car may contain illegal contraband or dangerous weapons to conduct this search. Because a car is so mobile, courts have routinely upheld warrantless searches of vehicles under an exception to the 4th Amendment of the US Constitution.

Lastly, if the police want to, they can put you in the back of their patrol car and wait for another officer to show up with a search warrant. By doing this, the officer has the right to do a very thorough search of your vehicle.

By far the best advice to take is that, if you have nothing to hide from the officer, consent to the search. If there is something incriminating in your car that the officer may find, however, then you may want to consider withholding your consent in order to challenge the search later on in court.

My car was impounded, can the police search it?

If your can has been towed and impounded by the police, they have the right to conduct a full and thorough search of your vehicle. This includes opening any locked compartments or containers that are within your car. The police must make a detailed inventory of everything in the car during an impound search, however, which results in a lot of paperwork. Because of this, police often do not impound cars merely for the purpose of conducting vehicle searches.

I was stopped at a roadblock and asked to wait to answer some questions by a police officer, can they do this?

In short: yes. Roadblocks are legal as long as the police use a neutral and non-inconveniencing policy to determine which cars are asked to stop. For instance, if a roadblock stops each car that passes through for questioning, then this would be legal. If the police only stopped cars driven by minorities, however, then that roadblock would not be legal.

In addition, if you have been stopped at a roadblock, the police cannot single out your car to wait unless the police officers have a good reason to believe that you have engaged in criminal activity. For example, if the police see bags of stolen money in your back seat, they may legally ask you to pull aside and wait to be arrested.

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