Traffic Stops & Civil Rights
Traffic stops can be time consuming, stressful, and can put your civil rights to the test. Since traffic stops are among the most common law enforcement interactions people have, it is also the most common time people choose to enforce their civil liberties. If you choose to, make sure you do it with the knowledge you need.
The best way to protect your rights is to know them and to be confident in your knowledge. If you are pulled over for a routine traffic stop, here are some tips on what to expect, how to act appropriately, and how to protect your rights.
Probable Cause & Consent To Search
You do not have to consent to a search. Unless a police officer has a search warrant or probable cause, the officer must have your consent before searching your car. Even if the police officer has a reason to search your vehicle, you can still refuse to consent to the search. Refusing to consent may not stop the officer from searching your car, but your refusal to consent may actually be a valuable asset when the traffic stop goes to court.
In that instance, your lawyer may be able to challenge the search and potentially have its findings thrown out. However, if you or anyone in your car is arrested, then the officer has the right to search regardless of whether you consent. And remember: Handing the officer your keys is the same as consenting to search.
So what constitutes probable cause?
An officer must have probable cause to believe a crime has been committed, before the officer may search your car. For example, an officer may have probable cause to believe you are driving under the influence if he smells marijuana or alcohol coming from the car or sees marijuana or alcohol in plain view. Excessive and reckless speeding can also lead to a search.
If the officer suspects there is a weapon in the vehicle, or that his safety is in question, the officer has probable cause to search. The officer also has probable cause to search your car if it matches the description of a car involved in a crime,
Moderate speeding, a broken taillight, or an expired registration does not usually equal probable cause.
What can you say to properly decline searches?
You should remain calm, polite and respectful when addressing a police officer and declining the officer’s request to search your car. Do not speak with anger or frustration. You must remain reasonable and calm—regardless of what the officer says or does.
Anything you say can and will be used against you in court, so it is important to refrain from challenging the officer or making comments that could be construed against you. Avoiding self-incrimination is key. Remember that refusing a search is always allowed and in no way should be considered an admission of guilt.
- If an officer asks if you know why you have been pulled over, kindly and calmly respond with “No, Officer.”
- To refuse a search, simply say, “Officer, I’m not resisting. I do not consent to this search.”
- Never take physical action.
An officer is asking for consent to search your car, even if he casually says “You don’t mind if I look in your car, do you?” This statement is actually a request to search your car and you must verbally refuse that request. Reply with, “Officer, I know that you are doing your job, but I don’t consent to any searches of my car.”
When Police Use Drug Dogs
Police officers are permitted to walk a drug dog around your vehicle during any traffic stop. You do not have the right to refuse a drug dog being used.If the dog smells drugs, the officer has probable cause to search your vehicle.
It is important to know that unless officers have some reasonable suspicion you have committed a crime, the officers may not detain you indefinitely while waiting for drug dogs to arrive. If detained, you should advise the Officer that you do not consent to any search, and then continue to remain respectful and stay where the officer has directed you. If the police officer is unable to have a drug dog arrive in a reasonable amount of time, you may continue to deny the officer consent to search your car.
Before officers are not permitted to detain you indefinitely, it is important that you establish whether you are being detained to wait for the dogs. You should ask the officer, “Officer, am I being detained, or am I free to go?” The officer may avoid giving you a direct answer. If so, you should remain calm and repeat your question.
Signing the Ticket
Have you ever been told not to sign the ticket by a friend or family member? This is a myth. Signing your ticket is not equivalent to admitting guilt. It simply means that you have received the ticket. Dispute your charges later, and make sure that you show up in court. Some people assume that the officer won’t show up and the violation will be dismissed, but this is often NOT the case. If you choose to go to court to challenge the ticket, you should be prepared to state your case.
Obligation to Answer Questions
You are never obligated to answer any of the police officer’s questions. Though it is best to be polite and comply as you are able, officers may ask certain “trick” questions designed to make you feel uncomfortable about your decision to decline a search or even to make you admit guilt. To avoid incriminating yourself, you should try to answer such questions tactfully but without admitting guilt or wrongdoing.
Length of Traffic Stops
There is no specific time limit for a stop. You can be detained anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour. On the other hand, a police officer may not detain you indefinitely. If you have been stopped for more than 30 minutes without any movement or activity, feel free to ask if you are still being detained or whether you are free to leave.
You may ask if you are free to go at any point. If you have refused a search and an officer threatens to bring in police dog, you should ask, “Officer, are you detaining me, or am I free to leave?” If the officer responds with another question, you may repeat “Officer, am I free to go?” You are entitled to a clear answer to this question. However, do not leave without the police officer clearly stating you are free to go.
Recording a Traffic Stop
In certain states you have the right to record the traffic stop. In other states, passengers have the right to record the situation. Police officers are not permitted to confiscate your recording device or ask you to erase the recording.
- If you are recording the stop, you should be make sure that you are not interfering with the investigation.
- If you elect to record a stop, remain respectful and courteous and do not abruptly reach for your phone.
Using an Attorney
If you are being detained by police officers for more than a routine traffic stop, it is probably best to use the magic words – “I’m going to remain silent. I would like to see a lawyer.” As mentioned earlier, you are never obligated to answer questions, and you want to avoid making incriminating statements.In stressful situations, you may inadvertently say something that could be construed against you. Instead, indicate you wish to remain silent until you are able to talk with your attorney.
You have the right to speak privately with an attorney. Beyond defending you, an attorney will assist you in defending yourself. An attorney will always help protect your rights in any situation.
Bottom Line: Remember to keep a level head and avoid escalating the situation. For example, if you are asked to put out your cigarette, you should do so—even if it is not necessary or mandatory. Knowing your rights should help you feel more comfortable in a tense situation, but it does not relieve you from an obligation to be courteous, respectful and cooperative. Learn your rights for the state where you currently reside.
Think you’re ready? Read these success stories and keep an eye out for more of our Know Your Rights blogs. If you have experienced something like these stories or a difficult traffic stop, please contact the Cochran firm today.