Whether or not you believe you were legally pulled over and stopped, there are some important steps you should take to minimize the consequences of a traffic stop. Generally, you should try to make the officer feel safe and avoid making them angry or suspicious during the stop. You also need to know and understand your rights to help ensure your own protection throughout the encounter.
This may be obvious and should go without saying, but if you notice a police vehicle following you, do not break the law. Put simply, if the police are looking for a reason to pull you over, don’t give them one. Similarly, if they are following you with their lights on, look to pull over and stop in a safe place at the first available opportunity. This will help to ensure the police officer feels safe when approaching your car; they don’t want to have to worry about oncoming traffic.
While it is important to stop safely, you should look to stop as soon as possible. By doing so, you are not admitting any guilt and you will have a better idea of where and why the officer pulled you over. Remember to pull over using the proper turn signals to avoid provoking the officer and accumulating more complications or possible probable cause justifications for an officer to cite in support of the stop.
Once you’ve stopped, turn off your engine and roll down your window. Place both of your hands on the steering wheel. If it’s dark outside, you should turn on your interior light as well. Officers are chiefly concerned with their own safety during a stop. By taking these simple steps, you communicate respect and show the officer that you do not intend to pull out a weapon or otherwise cause them harm.
An officer may request to search your vehicle during a traffic stop. There are multiple ways for them to legally conduct a search, beginning with your consent. After giving permission to an officer to search your car, you cannot later claim that the search was illegally conducted, even if there was no legitimate probable cause to perform the search. Remember that you have a constitutional right to refuse a search, and your refusal cannot be used as evidence against you in court. Additionally, the officer will have to prove in court that he had a legal reason to conduct the warrantless search if done so without your consent.
There are of course a number of ways for an officer to legally conduct a search of your vehicle without your consent. One way is if an illegal object is in “plain view” of the officer. For example, if the officer notices an open container of alcohol or drug paraphernalia in the vehicle sitting in plain view, they can arguably use that as a justification to detain you and search your vehicle. If an officer had probable cause to stop and arrest you for a crime, then too could legally justify an officer to conduct a search of your vehicle on the roadside or later at impound.
Another justification is if an officer has probable cause to believe that a crime had taken place based on evidence within the car. For example, if you have a collection of items that are not necessarily illegal to possess—but on balance—suggest that a crime may have taken place, then an officer may be justified in searching for the fruit of further illegality. You may also be searched if you have a valid Fourth Amendment waiver. If you are on probation or parole, and a condition of your release includes a valid 4th waiver, then an officer may search your vehicle, with or without probable cause. In this case, you cannot refuse to provide consent.
Lastly, an officer may search your vehicle if the officer believes that a search must be conducted in order to prevent evidence of a crime from being destroyed. While the last reason is not a common justification for searches during traffic stops—like most things—it can still be used if it can be proven in court.
If you’re pulled over by law enforcement, remember to stay calm. Be respectful to the officer, even if you disagree with their reasons for stopping you, it will ultimately help you minimize the consequences of the stop. It’s always important to know your rights as a citizen during a traffic stop. Finally, if you are arrested on the roadways and an officer performs what you believe to have been an illegal search of either you or your vehicle, you should have an experienced criminal defense attorney help you to analyze the facts and circumstances surrounding the stop and search.
There are various ways to deal with these sort of legal issues in court, including filing motions to suppress evidence (what is most commonly referred to as a 4th Amendment motion to suppress for an illegal search and seizure). Criminal Defense Attorney David Silldorf has successfully litigated countless suppression motions over the years in both state and federal courts. Please contact us if you believe you have been wrongfully arrested or your personal property has been illegally seized. We are here to help fight for your rights.