Traffic Stops and Your Rights

By Lydia Long PhD. | May 1, 2013

Every school break, students always ask me what to do if they are stopped by police. First, I tell them, don’t give the police a reason to stop you! Slow down and drive safe. Keep your car in good repair so they won’t have a reason to pull you over. And, remember laws vary from state to state, so know if it’s legal to have a radar detector, use your cell phone or have a gun in your vehicle. It’s your responsibility to be aware of the laws of the state. Always make sure you have your license, registration and proof of insurance in an easily accessible place, like your sun visor. When pulled over by a police officer stay in the car, turn on the interior lights and keep your hands on the steering wheel. Sit still, relax and wait for the officer to come to you. STAY in the car. Any sudden movements, ducking down, looking nervous or appearing to be searching for something under your seat could get you shot. Remember, the officer does not know what you are looking for under the seat. {{more}} My second reminder is, “BE POLITE”. Law Enforcement training varies from state to state. In Texas, officers receive hundreds of hours of training, so they know your rights too. Bottom line, the officer is doing their job. And, just like you they have good days and bad days. Don’t be a ‘bad’ encounter. Be polite, and remember during traffic stops the police are videotaping you, and recording what you say. Police officers like to ask the first question and that’s usually, “do you know why I stopped you? Do you know how fast you were going?” The police officer is trying to get you to do two things, admit that you committed a traffic violation and to get you to “voluntarily” start a conversation with him. Remember the police officer is doing their job. Politely answer questions, but don’t admit guilt. The police officer might start asking you personal questions such as “where are you going, where have you been and who did you see, etc.” There’s NO legal requirement that you provide information about your comings and goings to a police officer. You have to speak up and verbally ask the police officer if you are allowed to leave, otherwise the courts will assume that you wanted to stay and talk to the police officer on your own free will. Which you can do, too. Yelling, “I KNOW MY RIGHTS!” is not productive and would try the patience of Job. Don’t be rude, just ask if you are free to go. Passengers in your vehicle need to know their rights as well. They have the same right NOT to talk to a police officer and the right to refuse a search “unless it’s a ‘pat down’ for weapons. A passenger can ask, “Am I free to go?” How long can a police officer keep you pulled over “detained” during a traffic stop? The Supreme Court has made mention that no more than 15-20 minutes is a reasonable amount of time for a police officer to conduct his investigation and allow you to go FREE on your way. But you have to keep asking the police officer “AM I FREE TO GO?” If the officer asks if they can search your vehicle, you have the right to say “No”. Asking means they need your permission. If they go ahead and search without your consent, say, “I’m not consenting to the search.” Don’t argue, or start a fight. Just watch quietly. During a traffic stop a good time to ask “AM I FREE TO GO,” is after the police officer has given you a “warning or a ticket” and you have signed it. Once you have signed the ticket the traffic stop is legally over according to the U.S. Supreme Court. There’s no law that requires you to stay and talk to the police officer or answer any questions. After you have signed the ticket and got your license back you may roll up your window, start your car and leave. If you’re outside the car ask the police officer “AM I FREE TO GO?” If he says yes then get in your car and leave. If you do have a problem with an officer during a traffic stop, arguing with the officer is counter productive. Instead, immediately record all the relevant information and contact your attorney. If you question the validity of the ticket, you can have your day in court and argue your case before a Judge. Have a safe day. Lydia M. Long, Phd. is a Criminal Justice Professor with McMurry University.