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What to Do During Traffic Stops

Follow these simple steps during traffic stops to give yourself a fighting chance to contest a ticket.

When You First See the Police Car

Pull over quickly and safely, letting the police officer know you understand and are complying. Use your signals and pull as far to the right shoulder as you can. Your goal is to calm down a potentially high strung officer and make it clear that you understand he or she is in control. By pulling over quickly, you can also be close to the scene where the officer claims you committed a violation. This allows you to review the scene to evaluate the truthfulness of the officer's allegation and look for potential defenses such as obstructed views.

Right After You Are Stopped

Always be polite during traffic stops, even if the officer is aggressive. You have little to lose by being polite and a lot to lose by being belligerent. Roll down your window, turn off the engine and place your hands on the steering wheel. If it is night time, turn on your interior light. Do not reach for documentation: officers are trained to spot driver's reaching for hidden items, or stashing items, and it is likely an officer may misinterpret your actions. You might be reaching for your registration, but for all the officer knows, you're reaching for a gun.

If you have any suspicion that the officer is not really a police officer (e.g., you were pulled over by an unmarked car), ask politely to see the officer's photo identification and badge. If you still are unsure, you can ask that officer to call a supervisor to the scene or you can request that you be allowed to follow the officer to a police station.

Don't Give the Officer an Excuse to Search Your Car

Although police officers are normally not allowed to search your car during traffic stops, it's easy to give the officer a valid reason to search your car if you're not careful. Once the officer shines his or her spotlight on your car, the officer is watching you closely for any suspicious movements. For instance, if an officer observes you trying to hide or throw something out of the window, the officer may legally search your car. If you appear to hunch down in your seat, the officer may reasonably believe you're hiding something under the seat. Be calm, don't make sudden or suspicious movements and don't reach for anything until the officer asks you to.

If an officer has reason to believe you're armed, dangerous, or involved in criminal activity, the officer can frisk you. If the officer has probable cause (a reasonable basis to believe that you or your passengers are involved in criminal activity), then the officer can search your car. Even if the officer doesn't initially have probable cause, if during the stop the officer sees something in "plain view" (out in the open), then the officer is allowed to inspect it and any other objects the officer comes across can be legally seized as well. Common examples of items in plain view are open beer cans, wine bottles and drug paraphernalia.

Finally, an officer can search your car if you or any passenger in your car is arrested. If you are the one arrested, the police may tow your vehicle and do an "inventory" search of the car's contents without any need for reasonable suspicion.

Only Get Out of Your Car If the Police Officer Asks

You should not get out of your car unless the police officer asks you to. Again, you want to avoid antagonizing the officer and communicate that you understand he or she is in control. Officers are trained to expect the worst, and if you suddenly exit the vehicle, the officer is trained to think you're either going to fight or flee.

If an officer asks you to exit the vehicle, you should do so calmly and carefully, with no sudden movements. Exiting the vehicle may give you the opportunity to better survey the scene to verify the officer's allegations. If the officer has a reason to believe you're armed, he or she can pat down your outer clothing. If the officer finds something suspicious, he or she can reach in to grab the concealed object.

Talking to the Police Officer

Let the officer do most of the talking. Don't interrupt, don't be argumentative, and don't say anything that the officer can record and use against you. This means when an officer asks you questions such as "do you know why I stopped you", you should respond "no". If the officer asks you "do you know how fast you were going", you should simply answer "yes". Officers are trained to let you incriminate yourself by letting you admit to violations or admit that you were careless or negligent. If required, give noncommittal responses such as "ok" or "I see". Often the best course is simply not to respond, silence is not an admission of guilt and cannot be used against you. Be polite, but don't give the officer anything - it's his or her job to prove your guilt.
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