Getting pulled over can be a stressful experience. The sight of flashing red and blue lights in your rearview mirror makes some drivers feel nervous, defensive and angry. However, knowing what to expect and what to do when you get pulled over will help you remain calm and possibly avoid a citation.
Your Rights When Pulled Over
If a police car behind you has its lights flashing, even without a siren, use your turn signal and slowly pull over to the side of the road. Turn off your car, roll your window down at least halfway and place your hands on the wheel. None of this is an admission of guilt, but rather a courtesy to the officer. They have no idea what to expect, and are primarily concerned for their own safety as well as the safety of other people nearby.
After you have pulled over and parked, several minutes may pass before the police officer approaches your car. The officer will likely communicate with the police station, and may need time to get information about your vehicle from your license plate. Stay put. Do not get out of your car.
When the officer arrives at your driver side window, wait until they request your license and registration before you take your hands off the wheel. Again, this is a courtesy to the officer, and immediately establishes that you have nothing to hide and have done nothing wrong.
Once the officer has your license and registration, they may ask you some of the following questions:
- “Do you know why I pulled you over?”
- “Do you know how fast you were going?”
- “Have you been smoking a little weed this evening?”
Your answer to each question should be, “No, officer.” That’s it. In asking these types of open-ended questions, the officer is trying to get you to admit to something you may or may not have done. But you have the right to decline to answer police questions. This is your right to remain silent, as provided by the Fifth Amendment. The less you say, the better.
Chances are, the officer will want you to remain in your car. Do not step out unless instructed to do so. This brings us to the frustrating fact that the police can legally order you out of your vehicle. If that happens, step out slowly and close your driver’s side door once you are out.
Remember that complying with the officer’s request to step out of your vehicle is NOT an admission of guilt, nor have you inadvertently granted permission to the officer to search your vehicle, including the trunk.
When Can the Police Search Your Car?
The police require a warrant to search you or your property. However, during a traffic stop, the law allows the police to search your vehicle, but only if there is probable cause or (and this is the legal loophole) you give the officer permission to do so.
Some examples of probable cause include the sight or smell of alcohol, drugs or drug paraphernalia or (and this is important) the admission of guilt for a specific crime, which is why replying, “I don’t know, officer,” to leading questions is so important. Minor traffic violations, including a burnt-out taillight, speeding or failure to stop at a stop sign do not qualify as probable cause. Neither does a “hunch” expressed by the officer. (“I have a feeling you might not be telling me something. Is that true?”)
At this point, even though you may be outside of your vehicle and standing face-to-face with a police officer, you have the right to refuse any searches thanks to the Fourth Amendment.
But how do you refuse a search without escalating an already tense situation? It’s actually pretty simple; just stick with the following protocol:
Officer: “You look nervous. Is there something hidden in your pockets I should know about?”
Your response: “No, officer. I don’t consent to any searches.”
Despite what the police would have you believe, refusing a search is not an admission of guilt, nor does it grant the officer an automatic right to search or detain you.
(Another important thing to remember – if you are asked to take a field sobriety test or provide a blood sample, you can refuse. Refusal is not an admission of guilt. Even if you get pulled over for a DWI, all of the above still applies.)
Unless the officer specifically tells you that you are being detained or arrested, you are, by law, free to go. However, in the real world, the smart thing to do is ask, “Officer, am I being detained, or am I free to go?”
This establishes that you are being detained involuntarily, and will help out your case in the event you are arrested without cause and end up in court.
Houston Criminal Defense Attorneys
If you have been charged with a crime as a result of a traffic stop, and believe the arresting officer or officers violated your constitutional rights, contact the team at the Houston-based Thiessen Law Firm. Our award-winning criminal defense attorneys, including two-time Super Lawyer awardee Mark Thiessen, will fight for your rights to ensure you are given a fair trial. Schedule a consultation today.