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Understanding Your Rights During Traffic Stops

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Imagine that you’re driving down your usual route back from work. It’s six in the evening on a Friday and traffic is unusually heavy, even for the typically chaotic Friday rush hour. Suddenly, you spot the reason for the localized traffic jam: the police have set up a checkpoint along the road and have pulled two cars to the side for extra questioning.

Do you know your legal rights in this situation? Do you know what rights the police officer has to question you and, if they so desire, to search you and your car? Most people without a legal background don’t have a full understanding of their rights and responsibilities when pulled over by a police officer or stopped at a checkpoint.


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The basics of a traffic stop

There are two types of police stop: the checkpoint and the pull-over. At a checkpoint, police officers set up a cordon across a road and force every car coming from both directions to come to a stop, while in a pull-over, a patrol car orders a single vehicle to pull over onto the side of the road.

In both cases, the police have a specific goal in mind. That goal might be to ticket drivers for speeding or running a light, to test drivers for intoxication, or, in the case of a checkpoint, to check cars for drunk drivers, contraband and/or fugitives.

The specific steps of the traffic stop procedure depend upon the goal of the police. Once stopped, you’ll always be questioned, and in certain circumstances you might be asked to show your license, registration and proof of insurance. In the case of DUI stops and vehicle searches, drivers are typically asked to get out of their cars.

Your rights when stopped by police

Whether you’ve been stopped at a checkpoint or pulled over individually, you have the same rights and responsibilities with regard to police questioning and searches. You must show the officer your license, registration and proof of insurance when asked, but you are not required to answer any questions that could incriminate you.

Some questions should be answered without hesitation. If you’re asked whether you have any contraband in your car, you should give the officer an unequivocal “no” (and hopefully, you’ll be telling the truth.) If you’re sober and you’re stopped at a DUI checkpoint, you should obviously inform the police that you are not intoxicated.

If you’ve been pulled over as an individual vehicle, however, you may want to exercise your right to not answer questions. When asked why you were pulled over, say you didn’t know, even if you think you know what traffic rules you were breaking. If asked how fast you were driving, don’t admit to speeding, even if you were. If the police have evidence that you’ve committed an infraction, they’ll present it at court – your full cooperation will make no difference, and it almost certainly won’t erase the infraction from your record.

DUI stops are slightly more complicated. While a driver stopped for a DUI has the right to not answer any questions regarding his present state of mind or his departure and destination points, he cannot refuse to take a blood alcohol or breathalyzer test without incurring serious penalties, including the suspension of the driver’s license.

Police searches, plain view and probable cause

If you’ve been pulled over for a suspected DUI or the possession of contraband, the police will probably ask to search your car. You have the right to refuse a search unless:

– There is evidence of criminal activity or the possession of contraband in plain view of the officer (the plain view doctrine.)

– The police officer has “probable cause” to believe you have contraband in the car, meaning that he has good reason for his suspicions (for example, the presence of marijuana smoke in a car.)

– You’ve already been arrested for a DUI or another offense.

– The police officer believes there is imminent danger that evidence will be destroyed.

– Your vehicle has been involved in a serious incident such as an accident, and emergency services judge it necessary to enter your vehicle.

Your right to refuse a search is protected by the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. If you agree to a search, you’ve waived your Fourth Amendment rights, and anything the police find in the course of their search can be used against you or others in court. Keep in mind that these rights protect all people in the United States, including non-citizen residents and visitors.

Remaining calm and focused during traffic stops

Although you have the right to refuse to answer most questions or to refuse searches of your vehicle, you should always maintain a calm and polite manner when dealing with the police. If you’re being stopped by a patrol car, slow and try to come to a stop in a safe place along the side of the road, avoiding shoulders or extremely high-traffic areas. Keep your hands on your wheel when initially approached by the officer, and if you have to retrieve documentation from your glove box or some other compartment, inform the officer before doing so. Police officers are trained to watch for unexpected movements that might suggest the driver is reaching for a hidden weapon. It’s imperative that you remain as calm as possible during your traffic stop.

In the course of their lives, most American drivers will be stopped by police at least once, either for some perceived traffic violation or at a checkpoint. When you’re stopped by police, make sure you are ready and able to take advantage of your legal rights.