Traffic Stops - What is really taking place.

Let us say you are driving down the road and you see the flashing lights behind you. The first thing to keep in mind is that, as soon as the lights start flashing, the officer will begin collecting evidence for the report. The police report, as we will see is an important document in any future criminal case, so it is very important how you conduct yourself and how you interact with the police officer. Everything that you do and say from this point forward might make it into the police report, including the reason that the officer pulled you over in the first place, as well as how you stop your car and how long it took for you to pull over. So pull over quickly but safely.

“Why were you pulled over?”—Probable Cause

The first thing that you may wonder is why you have been stopped. What you should know is that, if the police officer suspects that you were involved in some type of criminal activity such as driving under the influence, and pulls you over for that reason, the officer must have had “probable cause” before pulling you over. There are many things that give a police officer the necessary probable cause to pull you over legally. The most common ones are:

  •  Driving on or over the lane divider • Drifting into the other lane
  •  Making a wide turn • Making an illegal turn
  • Weaving in your lane • Braking frequently
  • Nearly missing an object or another car
  • Driving very slowly, generally more than 10 mph below speed limit
  • Swerving • Driving with your headlights off
  • Not making turn signals, or making inappropriate turn signals 
  • Stopping in the middle of the road for no reason
  • Accelerating or decelerating too quickly 
  • Following another car too closely

Of course, just because a police officer pulled you over for the way you were driving does not necessarily mean the office has a right to search your car or at that point assert you were driving drunk. 

While you may feel that what the officer is doing is unfair, unreasonable, illegal or wrong, it is never a good idea to badmouth or insult the officer. At best it will make for a very unpleasant experience. At worst it could lead to your arrest. And again, what you say goes into the written report that the officer makes later.

“You've been pulled over—what should you do?”

Once you are stopped the officer will approach your vehicle to talk with you. He will first ask you to show your drivers license, registration and proof of insurance. You cannot be arrested for refusing to identify yourself, but if you do not promptly provide the documents the officer asks for, it is legal for the officer to search your vehicle in any location within the passenger compartment where he believes a drivers license or vehicle registration may be. If this is something you want to avoid, be sure to have your license and registration in a location where you can obtain it immediately so the officer does not have the justification to search your car.

If he suspects that you are involved in criminal activity, such as driving while intoxicated or being in possession of illegal drugs, the officer will be looking for any sufficient reason to arrest you. From the moment he lays eyes on you he will observe your demeanor, your appearance, the smell the air in the car, anything he can observe in plain view in the car, the behavior of other passengers in your car, and just about anything else that may confirm his suspicions. The officer will look for a number of common indicators of criminal activity, including:

  1. Odor of alcohol 
  2. Bloodshot or watery eyes
  3. Slurred speech
  4. Flushed face complexion
  5. Lack of coordination/fumbling to find your license

At some point he will likely ask you if you have consumed any alcoholic beverages or if there is anything in your car that you are not supposed to have. It is perfectly within your legal rights to politely refuse to answer these questions. The officer might still decide that he has enough reason to arrest you, but simply refusing to answer these question will not be reason enough for you to be convicted of crime or give the officer a legal basis to search your . The downside of refusing to answer the officer’s questions is that you will look suspicious, which is why, if you have not done anything wrong, the best idea is usually to simply say so.

No matter how you answer, if the officer suspects you are involved in some type of criminal activity, he will ask you to exit your vehicle.  You may politely ask what offense you are being cited for and if you have been given your ticket you should ask if you are free to leave, but again if officer suspects criminal activity he will likely refuse to let you leave. 

“You’ve been asked to get out of the car—do you have to?”

If the officer asks you to get out of the car, you must do so or you will be arrested. If the officer pats you down, do not physically resist. He may then ask to search your vehicle. You have the absolute legal right to refuse the search if you choose. The officer cannot arrest you simply for refusing to consent to a search of your vehicle. In some limited cases, however, your car can be searched without your permission or a warrant, as long as the police officer has probable cause to believe that you have committed a crime. Even if you think that what the officer is doing is illegal, DO NOT RESIST. If the officer illegally obtains evidence against you, it cannot be used at trial. No matter what else he does, if the officer has asked you to get out of the car, it is likely because he intends to either arrest you or ask you to take a field sobriety or breath test.