It will happen at least once in your life. You’re on your way to or from work or the grocery store. Or there’s a family emergency. It doesn’t matter whether it’s for speeding, real-life Grand Theft Auto, or a taillight out. You will be pulled over. So you see the red and blue lights in your mirror, pull over to the shoulder, and bring your car to a stop. Then what?
Well, there’s no magic formula to get you off the hook. But there is a lot that can go wrong, regardless of whether you’re guilty of anything. We’ll tell you how to navigate the murky waters of a traffic stop while remaining entirely within your rights. Remember, it might be stressful, but all parties involved want a traffic stop to go quickly and smoothly. Here are your rights when you’re pulled over, as well as a few pointers on how to make these interactions as painless as possible.
1. Be ready
We might as well start from the beginning. As soon as you see the police cruiser in your mirror, put your turn signal on and quickly and safely come to a stop on the shoulder. Try to pull as far off the road as possible, leaving plenty of safe space for the officer to walk. Once your car is in park, roll down your window. Then, turn off your radio, and turn on your car’s dome light if it’s dark out. If you can signal to the officer that you’re eager to cooperate before they even get out of the car, it might work in your favor if they’re feeling particularly charitable.
Next: Know what you’re stopped for.
2. Reasonable suspicion
So the officer is out of their car and walking up to your window. The officer needs a reason to pull you over, though that burden can be somewhat light. This is known as reasonable suspicion, and it can be for anything, including a license plate light being out or speeding. If the officer fails to tell you why they pulled you over, don’t be afraid to ask. Some department policies are to always tell you right away, but it’s not necessarily guaranteed.
Next: Be the strong, silent type.
3. You don’t have to say much
“You have the right to remain silent” might be the the first thing you hear if you get arrested, but that right doesn’t just kick in should you ever get a pair of cuffs slapped on you. If you’re in a routine traffic stop, you need to provide your license, registration, proof of insurance, and, in some states, answer some basic identifying questions if asked. If the officer asks for these documents, ask permission to reach for them and state where they are at. This will help put the officer at ease with what you plan to do with your hands. Other than that, you can be as quiet as you want to be. Remember: Staying silent means you can’t incriminate yourself.
Next: Record-keeping isn’t a bad idea.
4. Film away
Let’s be honest: Relations between the police and certain communities aren’t great right now. In an effort to show some transparency, law enforcement agencies across the country are adopting body cameras, so there’s a record of virtually every interaction between police and citizens. But if you want to take matters into your own hands, it’s perfectly legal to film or record a traffic stop, so you have a record of the interaction, especially if you think you might need to dispute something later. Just keep in mind that filming should not impede the officer’s requests for your documents or cooperation, so it’s best if the camera is mounted or otherwise not in your hands.
Next: There’s no law against this, but we wouldn’t recommend it.
5. An attitude isn’t illegal
There’s no law governing etiquette for dealing with an officer, and you can’t be arrested for having a bad attitude. But being difficult won’t do you any favors either. In fact, it’s probably the easiest way to make a tense situation go bad. If you’re being mistreated, fighting fire with fire isn’t going to help you at a traffic stop. As retired NYPD detective Harry Houck tells CNN: “Any level-headed person who gets pulled over does what a police officer tells you, and there won’t be any problems. Whether the cop is wrong, you can hash it out in courts after it’s over.”
6. You can refuse a breathalyzer test
This one is a double-edged sword. If you’re asked to submit to a breathalyzer test, remember you’re being asked, not ordered. Still, many states have implied consent laws, which mean you automatically consent to the test as soon as you get your license. If you refuse, you can still be arrested and charged with a DUI based on evidence presented by arresting officers. Either way, being in this scenario is a no-win situation.
Next: Know when it’s time to exit.
7. Know where you stand
Most officers want traffic stops to be as quick as possible. But if you’re in a situation where you’ve had your documents returned but you’re still being questioned by the officer, you’re well within your rights to say, “I need to be going. Am I free to go?” If the answer isn’t a clear “yes,” you can ask, “Am I being detained?” If you’re not allowed to leave, it’s time to stop talking and think about getting a lawyer.
Next: Innocent or not, don’t ever do this.
8. Don’t allow a search for any reason
Sometimes, an officer will nonchalantly ask, “Mind if I take a look in your car?” Innocent or not, do not ever consent to this; no good ever comes of it. The only way an officer can search your car is if you consent, if you have something illegal in plain view, if they’ve already arrested you, if they have probable cause that a crime has immediately been committed, or if there’s danger that evidence from a crime could be immediately destroyed. Other than that, they need a warrant. End of story.
9. Warrants and checkpoints are (mostly) non-negotiable
If you’re driving and come to a police checkpoint, you need to stop and interact with the officers. There really isn’t a lot of wiggle room there. And in the event police have a warrant to search your car, you must let them search. But there is a catch: If they’re looking for a specific object, they only can search areas where that object can fit. If police start searching outside the parameters of the warrant, they’re violating your rights.
Editor’s note: Content was updated for clarity and accuracy on 5/31/19.