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Know Your Rights During Traffic Stops

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You are driving to work and in the rearview mirror you see it – those flashing red and blue lights coming to turn your good day into a bad one. You are already wondering what you could of possibly done wrong, and some people even start to feel guilty for no reason. It’s hard not to. Aside from the power the police officer has, standing above you and looking down, it’s kind of intimidating having a conversation with a veteran that does this day in and day out when compared to your two rookie encounters with the law, maybe years apart. All it takes it one slip up and you might not be getting to that 9am meeting. How do you keep yourself from being a victim, as well as making a routine traffic stop easy for both parties? Here are some tips about what to do when a police officer pulls you over, and a reminder of your basic rights during traffic stops.

Know Your Rights During Traffic Stops

These rules help to protect your civil rights and improve your chances of driving away safely.

Be kind & collected

Every officer will have a different approach during a traffic stop, but it’s important to remember that their goal is to get you to admit guilt. We covered this briefly in our last blog post on Traffic Stop Etiquette, but it’s important enough to note again: when they ask you questions that seem routine, casual, or innocent, they are likely anything but. When you pull over, turn off your car, and put your hands on the wheel – don’t reach for your documents until the officer asks you for them.

Once he’s standing at your window, you can ask the officer why you were stopped. If he/she tries to give you a hard time and deflects the question back to you (“Can you tell me why you were stopped?”) just be honest and say you don’t know. They can stop you for any reason, and you don’t want to apologize or make a guess and further incriminate yourself. Sure, maybe you were speeding a few minutes ago… but maybe your taillight is out too, and that’s all the officer noted as he decided to stop you on your way into work?

Say NO to any search requests.

You are absolutely within your rights during traffic stops to say no to a search request. Remember: the only reason an officer will ask for your permission is because they don’t have enough evidence to search without your consent. If you say yes, you’re giving up your important Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. A police officer does not have to inform you of your rights before asking for your consent to search your vehicle. Because of this, it’s important that YOU know and are fully aware of your rights.

Ask if you are being detained.

If you’re not being arrested or detained, you have the right to terminate an encounter with a police officer. You don’t have to answer any questions. You can respectfully decline to answer, and then ask: “Am I free to go?” If he says yes, leave right away. If he doesn’t answer, or asks another question instead, persist politely with your question: “Am I being arrested? Or can I go now?” If he says no, you might be under arrest.


Use your phone to record.

The Fifth Amendment is powerful. That’s why your Miranda Rights are important to truly understand: “anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.” If you have a phone or a recorder, always turn it on for your safety and let the officer know they are being recorded. This will give you the evidence you need if they aren’t performing a routine traffic stop by the book. You can always attempt a discovery request, but these can always be ignored.

Keep private items private.

A police officer can use their eyes to scan inside your vehicle at the time of being pulled over. If you have any items you don’t want to be confiscated, don’t leave them in plain view for the officer. Probable cause, a search warrant, or consent will be needed for further investigation.

Knowing your rights when being pulled over is crucial. We know that every situation is different. If there’s something you need to clarify, you can contact the attorneys at Elsner Law Firm. We’re happy to give you a free consultation if you find yourself a victim of an unlawful or unfortunate traffic stop event.


What do I do if I have anxiety attacks when being pulled over?

Let me be clear first, no one should fake a symptom. This isn’t elementary school and that police officer that pulled you over isn’t your mother. But if you do suffer from social anxiety disorder, one solution is to be up front about it or even create a card that explains you suffer from Social Anxiety disorder. This will let the police officer know you didn’t come up with this on the whim.

Do cops need a warrant to search your car?

Unless police have strong evidence (aka – probable cause), they can not search your vehicle without your consent. This is why, even if you’re not hiding anything, you should never agree to a police search.

What if the police officer says he smells marijuana?

Courts have rules that odor of contraband gives officers probable cause. There is no perfect way to handle this situation, but just remember that police sometimes use tricks like this to get around your constitutional rights. The best thing to do is to assert: “I have nothing to hide, but I do not consent to any searches”.
Elsner Law Firm is located in Snohomish County, and we’re happy to answer further questions or concerns. Please contact us by calling or texting us today at 206-447-1425.

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