What Should You Do When the Police Pull You Over?

What should you do when the police pull you over?

We’ve all heard the media reports of people who have been assaulted by police, wrongfully arrested by police, or even killed by police on the side of the road. What can you do to minimize the possibility of a negative or even violent outcome when someone in uniform with a loaded gun forces you to stop on the side of the road and then approaches your car window?

Below, we will discuss what to do when police pull you over, including:

  • Your rights when are pulled over by police,
  • Common misconceptions about your rights when pulled over by police,
  • What you can do to make a police encounter go as smoothly as possible and minimize the risk of an arrest or violence.

When the Police Pull You Over – Know Your Rights

Your constitutional rights kick in as soon as a police officer turns their blue lights on – a traffic stop is a “Fourth Amendment event” because you are being detained against your will, and you have the right to remain silent, the right to an attorney if you are being questioned, and the right to be free from unreasonable searches or detentions.

Your Right to Remain Silent

You have the right to remain silent during a traffic stop.

I’m not suggesting that you should ignore the officer and say nothing – I don’t imagine that encounter will end well…

I am suggesting that, after providing the officer with your driver’s license, insurance, and registration, and briefly engaging in any harmless “small talk,” you should politely decline to answer questions.

The officer may be investigating you for a crime that you are unaware of, and they aren’t likely to fill you in before asking questions that could be unintentionally incriminating. In many cases, the officer is asking you questions to try and get consent to search your vehicle or to “manufacture” probable cause so they can search your vehicle.

Be polite, but, once you have provided the officer with the necessary documentation, ask them, “Am I free to go?” and politely decline to answer any further questions.

Your Right to Be Free from Unreasonable Search or Seizure

One common misconception is that police must get a warrant before searching your vehicle when they pull you over.

They don’t – the “automobile exception” to the search warrant requirement allows police to search your car when they have probable cause, without a warrant and without your permission.

Who decides whether there is probable cause? The officer does, initially, but you will have the opportunity to challenge that decision later in court if you are charged with a crime.

Police can:

  • Pull you over if they suspect a traffic violation has occurred,
  • Hold you on the side of the road long enough to check your documents and write a ticket,
  • Ask you to step out of the vehicle and you must comply,
  • Do a “cursory” search of the vehicle for weapons if they have “reasonable suspicion” (a lower standard than probable cause, or
  • Search your vehicle if they have probable cause that there is evidence of a crime.

Your Right to an Attorney

You have the right to an attorney before police question you.

Obviously, an attorney is not going to come out and represent you on the side of the road when you are involved in a traffic stop, so what’s the point?

If you ask for an attorney, the police must stop questioning you. If police are attempting to question you on the side of the road, politely tell them you do not want to answer questions and that you want your attorney if they are going to continue.

If your request for an attorney is unambiguous, and they continue to interrogate you, any statements you make in response to their questions may be excluded in court if you are arrested.

Things You Should Do When the Police Pull You Over

What else can you do when the police pull you over to make the encounter go smoothly and without incident?

Stop in a Safe Place as Quickly as Possible

If you feel that you are in danger – something feels “off” or you aren’t sure the blue lights are a real police officer – you should continue until you find a well-lit location with people around before you stop.

If you do this, be aware that the officer behind you may be getting angry, may not be having a good day, and there may be consequences when you finally stop. Put your blinkers on, drive slowly, and immediately call 911 to let them know the situation, confirm that it is a real police officer behind you, and get them to relay a message to the officer.

In most situations, you should immediately pull your vehicle over in a safe location. Turn off the vehicle, turn on the interior light so the officer can see what you are doing, roll down your windows, and place your hands on the steering wheel where the officer can see them.

Stay Calm

Take deep breaths and stay calm.

Even if the officer accuses you of something you did not do, even if the officer is rude and angry, and even if you are having the worst day of your life, stay calm.

You are more likely to get through the encounter without incident if you speak in a confident but non-threatening tone of voice and treat the officer with respect and kindness.

Show Your Driver’s License, Registration, and Proof of Insurance

You must always show your driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance upon request when you are driving a motor vehicle – be prepared to show them as soon as you are pulled over.

Inform the Officer of Any Weapons

If there are firearms in your vehicle, let the officer know what you have and where they are located, and then keep your hands on the steering wheel so the officer can see them at all times.

Do not put a firearm in your hand during a traffic stop, and do not make any sudden or unexplained moves that could be misunderstood by a nervous police officer. If the officer asks to take custody of the weapon for their safety, tell them where it is and let them retrieve it themselves, so you are not putting a gun in your hand.

Refuse Consent to Search, but do not Interfere

You have the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, but you do not have the right to interfere with an officer who decides they are going to search anyway…

Tell the officer they do not have your consent to search, and do not assist them in the search, but do not interfere if they decide to search your vehicle anyway.

Ask if You are Free to Leave

Once you have provided your documentation, and the officer has given you any tickets, do not answer further questions. If the officer begins questioning you or attempts to engage you in conversation after the purpose of the traffic stop has concluded, ask them, “Am I free to go?”

If you are free to go, leave. If they say you are not free to go, politely decline to answer questions and ask for an attorney.

If you are Arrested…

If you are arrested, remain silent and contact an experienced criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible – do not give any statements to the police or discuss your case with anyone until you have spoken with your attorney.

Criminal Defense Lawyers in Charleston, SC

Charleston, SC criminal defense attorney Grant B. Smaldone represents people charged with crimes in SC state and federal courts.

If you have been charged with a crime or believe that you are under investigation in the Charleston, Georgetown, or Myrtle Beach areas of SC, call now at (843) 808-2100 or send an email to schedule a free consultation.


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