Important Rights You Have When You’re Pulled Over by the Police

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

Ford Police Interceptor Utility

Show cooperation when you’re stopped. | Ford

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. Probable cause

Police traffic stop

Know why you were pulled over. | iStock.com

So the officer is out of their car and walking up to your window. They should tell you why you’ve been pulled over right away. You have a right to know why you were stopped, and officers need a reason to stop you. This is known as probable cause, 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; it’s your right to know.

Next: Be the strong, silent type. 

3. You don’t have to say much

police body camera

New York Police Department Sergeant Joseph Freer demonstrates how to use a body camera. | Andrew Burton/Getty Images

“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

Police wear body cameras.

Filming keeps people honest. | Yui Mok-WPA Pool/Getty Images

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.

Next: There’s no law against this, but we wouldn’t recommend it. 

5. An attitude isn’t illegal

Washington, D.C., police cruisers

You don’t have to be nice, but being difficult could escalate the situation. | Karen Bleier/Getty Images

At the end of the day, police officers are doing a job and want their days to go as smoothly as possible. But you don’t have to pretend to be their friend or do anything outside of your rights. Sometimes officers will even try to bargain with you, saying cooperating with them will “make things easier.” All this ever does is make things easier for them. You shouldn’t do this. Really, you don’t even have to be friendly at all.

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.”

Next: But you don’t always have to do what you’re told.

6. You don’t have to leave your car

Ford Ecoboost Police Interceptor

It’s typically your right to remain in your vehicle. | Ford

More often than not, when a police officer asks you to step out of the car, it’s for their own safety. They either want to make sure you don’t have a concealed weapon on you or issue a field sobriety test. You can refuse to do this; it’s well within your rights. But no matter how respectfully you decline, it might escalate the situation.

Next: Even exercising this right might land you in jail. 

7. You can refuse a breathalyzer test

yellow law enforcement line with police car

Refusing a breathalyzer could still get you a DIY. | iStock.com/carlballou

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. 

8. Know where you stand

police car

You may ask to leave. | Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

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. 

9. Don’t allow a search for any reason

handcuffed woman

Officers may search your car if they’ve already arrested you. | Johan Ordonez/AFP/Getty Images

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. 

10. Warrants and checkpoints are (mostly) non-negotiable

officers stand in line

You have to stop at a police checkpoint. | Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

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.

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