Surviving a Traffic Stop
Being pulled over by a police officer can be a stressful experience. Although life is full of such experiences, unlike many other stressful experiences, a traffic stop has the potential to end in a loss of money, liberty or even life. No two traffic stops are entirely identical. Therefore, the advisable course of conduct will vary depending on the situation. However, there are some general rules which can be helpful in many situations.
The best piece of advice one can offer is to avoid being pulled over in the first place. A traffic stop offers nothing to be gained. The best case scenario for the driver is to leave as if the stop never occurred losing only some time.
On the other hand, the downside can be disastrous. Vehicle equipment violations such as expired tags or an unlit taillight equate to a neon sign on your car inviting an officer to pull you over. Remember, the police can legally justify a traffic stop based on an equipment violation even if the police officer subjectively intended to investigate some unrelated issue. Moving violations such as speeding or failing to use turn signals also serve to legally justify a traffic stop. Avoid giving the police a free pass to pull you over.
Notwithstanding your best efforts, you may nonetheless find yourself being pulled over by the police. Needless to say, do not attempt to flee as this will earn you a felony charge as well as a very excited and unfriendly police officer at the end of the chase. Your main goal should be to survive the traffic stop with your life and liberty intact.
A traffic stop is a terrible time to be testing out new legal theories or arguing about constitutional law. You can resolve any disputes with the police officer in court at a later date.
The law is well settled that a police officer can order both the driver and any passengers out of the vehicle at a traffic stop. However, do not exit the vehicle until the police officer orders you to do so. If you are fortunate enough to have a passenger at your traffic stop, you should ask the passenger to carefully observe all events. Your passenger may be an important witness if events during the traffic stop deteriorate.
Although there are many different varieties of police officers, you should expect a police officer who is nervous and possibly excited. Do not give the police officer reasons to be suspicious. Do not engage in any quick or covert movements. You should place both of your hands in plain view on the steering wheel.
If there ever exists a good time to socialize with a police officer, a traffic stop is not one of them. You should attempt to end the traffic stop as quickly as possible. You have no constitutional right to a friendly or courteous police officer. Do not demand to know the reason for the traffic stop. Remain calm, polite and respectful at all times even if you have to fake it. You should immediately produce your license, vehicle registration and auto insurance upon request. Plan ahead by storing these items in an easily accessible place so you are not fumbling around trying to find them in front of the police officer. Such conduct is often interpreted as alcohol or drug impairment.
Use your common sense. You should quickly assess the police officer. There are some excellent public servant type police officers who I often refer to as “peace officers”. On the other hand, there are those who revel in the overwhelming amount of power afforded to police officers who I refer to as “law enforcement officers.” You must use extraordinary caution when dealing with the law enforcement officer as things can escalate very quickly.
Most police officers are honest; some are not. Unless you personally know the police officer, you should not assume you are interacting with an honest person. Because we live in a time when mere possession can be a serious crime, a dishonest police officer can rather easily cause an innocent person to be charged with serious felony offenses.
Constitutional rights exist, at least in theory, to protect the innocent. Do not give your rights away. If this is not obvious to you by now, please see my article entitled, “Don’t Be Your Own Worst Enemy”. I always advise against consenting to any search or talking to a police officer. During a traffic stop, you should communicate your refusals especially politely. Always keep your main goal in mind at a traffic stop.
If you simply cannot resist the urge to talk to a police officer, I suggest you read the back of my business card. This is a good way to document exactly what you said to the police officer. Do not simply hand the card to the officer. Remember, nobody can invoke your rights but you.
As a general rule, you should not volunteer information or answer any questions about having a weapon. Said another way, do not open a potential can of worms. However, if the police officer is about to discover the presence of a weapon, you should inform the police officer about all details of the weapon so as to avoid an accident. Also, if you have a concealed weapons permit, you must produce the permit upon the officer’s request.
If you are asked to sign an affidavit of service, sign it. Failure to sign an affidavit of service will likely result in an unnecessary arrest. In such a case, the officer had discretion to arrest you, but decided against it. You cannot waive your right to trial at a traffic stop. Even if you disagree with the charge, being arrested for failure to sign an affidavit of service will not strengthen your case.
If you are arrested, do not resist. Resisting even an unlawful arrest can earn you a felony charge. Expect a search of your vehicle and your person upon arrest. You should request to call an attorney immediately. If you are given a choice, do not opt to have your vehicle towed. You should expect to see a judge within twenty four hours, and you should try to arrange for an attorney at that hearing.
Traffic stops are not pleasant. However, handled with the right amount of tact, many traffic stops will result in nothing more than a waste of your time. Even for the more significant traffic stops, fighting it out in court is always a better choice than haggling with a police officer who has the power, and maybe the inclination, to arrest you.