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Traffic Stops: What You Can and Can’t Say No To

Driving legally is a privilege in the United States, and with that privilege comes many rules and stipulations that must be followed by all drivers. If you break any laws while driving a car, you run the risk of being pulled over by a police officer. Depending on the context of your specific traffic stop, an officer may request to search your vehicle, or make other requests you may wonder if you can legally deny. A traffic stop can be intimidating for even the most experienced drivers, so being aware of what is required of you and what your rights are in the event you get pulled over is important.

Your Behavior During a Traffic Stop

Most people would advise that you be as compliant with the officer as possible if you get pulled over, and for good reason; officers can claim that noncompliant behavior gave them further reason to take more serious action against you during a stop. Here are some general rules to follow to keep yourself safe and comply with an officer if you get pulled over:

  • Make sure to slow down as soon as you notice you are being pulled over and indicate to the officer that you are pulling over by using your blinker.
  • Roll down your driver’s side window and keep your hands on the steering wheel.
  • If you are pulled over at night, turn on the interior lights on your car so the officer can see where your hands are at all times.
  • Avoid sudden movements.
  • Do not look for your driver’s license or any other documentation until instructed to do so, especially if it is located in your glove compartment.

Following these tips increases your chances of having a smooth and typical traffic stop. Once you have communicated with the officer and been told why you were pulled over, you can ask them if you are free to go. If they say yes, you can be on your way, but if they say no or state that they are detaining you, do your best to remain calm. If they place you under arrest, you have the right to ask why.

Your Rights During a Traffic Stop

Many of the rights you retain in an average interaction with the police remain the same in the context of a traffic stop. It is important to remember that, during a traffic stop, you can still invoke your right not to speak with the officer if your attorney is not present. Lying to a police officer is a crime but choosing to remain silent is not. If you decide that you do not want to speak to the officer, be sure to clearly tell the officer that you do not want to speak to them without an attorney present. Here are some examples of questions a police officer cannot legally require you to answer during a traffic stop:

  • What your immigration status is
  • Where you are traveling from
  • Where you are going
  • What you are doing

If you feel inclined to provide the officer with this information, you can, but remember that doing so is waiving your rights. If an officer requests that you exit your vehicle, you do have the legal right to remain seated. However, complying with their request might be wise to avoid escalating the situation. If you suspect that your rights have been violated during a traffic stop, try to remember as many details about the encounter as you can in case you need to file a report against the officer or officers later. Asking for their badge numbers and their names is your right. In most cases, you can also file a complaint with the department the arresting officer works for. These complaints can usually be made anonymously.

If your traffic stop ends with you being arrested, you have the legal right to make a phone call, so long as it’s local. Note that police officers cannot listen to the call if the call is being made to a lawyer. They can, however, listen in if you call a family member, friend, or anyone else.

Can an Officer Search Me or My Vehicle During a Traffic Stop?

If a police officer has not told you that you are under arrest or if the officer does not have a valid warrant, they cannot search you. If an officer performs a search during a traffic stop that you did not consent to or that was unwarranted, anything incriminating found during that search can be dismissed in a court of law. The Constitution protects us from unwarranted search and seizures as outlined in the Fourth Amendment.

However, an officer can give you a pat-down through your clothes without a warrant or place you under arrest if they believe that you possess a weapon. If an officer requests this of you, you should do your best to be compliant. The legal rationale for a search of this nature will come down to the officer’s word versus yours in a court of law.

Can I Document the Traffic Stop?

You have the legal right to take videos and images of the officer’s actions, so long as you are not interfering with their process. Legally, anyone in a public space has consented to appearing in videos and photographs just by being in the public space. The officers cannot request that you delete the images you have taken or confiscate the device you used to take them without a proper warrant. It is important to note that the legality of recording sound without consent differs between states.

Despite it being legal to capture video and images in a public space, an officer may request that you turn over your device or delete the images you have taken. In this case, it is best to let the officer know that you are aware of what your rights are, because they might let it go. If they escalate and the request becomes intimidating or otherwise intensifies the situation, you might want to consider handing the device over and filing a report against them later.

Contact an Attorney Today

If you believe that your rights have been violated during a traffic stop, or if you need legal counsel regarding the events of a traffic stop you were involved in, please contact The Law Offices of Christopher J. Cherella today. With over 20 years of experience working as a criminal defense lawyer, Attorney Cherella understands that a violation of your rights, either perceived or actual, can be traumatic and difficult to navigate. He will work your case with empathy and consideration for what you have been through. Contact him today at (414) 882-8382 or via his contact page.