One of the more frequently asked questions in my line of work is also one of the easiest to answer because the response to being pulled over is pretty formulaic. That is to say, whether you’re stopped for speeding, drunk driving, or no reason at all, you may respond to the officer in the same manner… for the most part. In this post, I’ll outline the practice I’ve honed, and use personally, when stopped by law enforcement. Let me know, if you have anything to add, critiques, or even just a good story.
Part One: In the Rearview MirrorIt all starts with those red and blue flashing lights...
As soon as you notice that you are being pulled over, find a safe place to stop, which may mean you continue driving for a short while. If you can, park in a public place, where people can easily see you and what the officer is doing; creating witnesses holds an officer more accountable. If, for example, you are being stopped on Main Street, pull off to a side street, but not too far down. That way, you’re in a safe place, and you are still visible to passersby. If you are being pulled over on the highway, you may consider taking a close off-ramp that lets out into an area with sidewalks (and people).
Once you’ve pulled over, turn off the music, place your hands on the steering wheel (10 o’clock and 2 o’clock), and take off your sunglasses and hat. First impressions go a long way, both in life and in law. You want the officer to be agreeable when he arrives, not yelling at you over blaring music or nervous about your hand placement.
Using your rearview mirrors, determine which side of the car the officer is approaching. At that point, roll down the officer-side window just low enough for audible clarity (both ways!). I’ve seen officers demand that you roll the window all the way down, but I am not aware of any state in which that is required. Keeping the window at this level, you prevent the officer from leaning into the car to smell or search. Note: the officer may ask you to “exit the vehicle.” If this happens, follow the procedure below.
Part Two: Exiting the Vehicle
As you exit the vehicle, keep your hands visible, as much as possible, and keep your cell phone and wallet on your person. Lock the car behind you. Keeping your cell phone and wallet, you preclude the officer from seizing everything by simply detaining your vehicle. Granted, an officer needs a search warrant to search both your car AND your phone, however, having your cell phone handy is obviously more convenient when you need to call your attorney. Note: the officer may get upset when you lock your car. That’s just too bad because, as you tell him, it’s a habit that you always lock your vehicle.
Once you are out of the vehicle, the officer may ask to pat you down for weapons. This is a lawful exercise of his authority. Do not resist and give him/her (I’ll continue in the masculine pronoun) further reason to detain you. Do, however, deny permission to search both your person and your vehicle.
Cops are seriously underestimated in the field of psychology. These guys and gals are expertly trained to prey on the human condition, saying things like “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you won’t mind me searching your car.” My position on this kind of behavior is that, if we agree to searches in this context (say, you actually don’t have anything to hide - though, you can never be sure your friend didn’t leave a joint in the back!), we promote a maxim that asserting your constitutional rights is suspicious, if not criminal. In other words, ignore your rights and they go away. Frankly, I’ll always take the ticket, instead of trying to cooperate and talk my way out of it, so long as I’ve stood up for the Bill of Rights.
But I digress…
Part Three: “I Do Not Consent to a Search”
Never agree to a search of your person or your vehicle. NEVER. If the cop says he’ll arrest you if you don’t hand over the keys, tell him, respectfully, that you do not consent to a search. Once you’ve set the record on that point, give him the keys. He still needs a search warrant, if he doesn’t already have some exception to the requirement. This, along with the actual stop, is what we call a stop-gap, at which point the prosecution’s case may be challenged in court. That’s a good thing for you. So… NEVER CONSENT TO A SEARCH.
I suppose, at this point, I should reiterate that you can be both confident in your rights and respectful, although it is not always welcome. Still, try to maintain your position without coming off an asshole.
Part Four: “Am I Free to Go?”
At this point, the officer will either cite you for whatever traffic violation he has tagged you with, or he will let you go. Note: without reasonable suspicion of further criminal activity, he has no legally justifiable reason to continue detaining you. The smell of marijuana, alone, is not enough. Moreover, he cannot continue detaining you, while he waits on a K-9 unit, beyond the time it takes to complete the investigation of the traffic violation. This isn’t to say you should get in his face about it. Just be sure to ask the officer if you are free to go. If he keeps holding you, and there is a record of your request to leave, we have something to work with. So, thank you!
Part Five: “Respectfully, I Will Not Participate in Your Investigation”
Finally, we talk about Miranda and the Fifth Amendment. From the time the officer has pulled you over, you are under investigation, and anything and everything you say may be used against you in a court of law. Now, you do have to answer some questions, like “What’s your name?” You also have to provide license and registration, even proof of insurance. Don’t fight these small things. However, when the officer asks how fast you were going, where you are going, etc., say “Respectfully, officer, I would not like to participate in your investigation.” Another, perhaps easier, approach is "My attorney told me not to talk to cops." It's that simple. They’ll likely come back with some bullshit about making friendly conversation, or how they’re only doing their job, and you may have to repeat yourself multiple times. That’s okay. Remain confident.Take home point: don’t provide any further information, beyond your name and the particulars of identification that they require to issue your ticket. Once you’ve received your ticket, ask if you are free to go.
Note: signing your ticket does not admit guilt, while not signing the ticket is a crime. Sign the ticket.
I hope this helps!
Let me know, if you have any questions. :-)
Not guilty, always.