What Do I Do If I’m Pulled Over?

by Stephanie Andre | Last Updated: August 19, 2020

You see the blue and red lights flashing in your rearview mirror. It’s never a good feeling. A police officer is asking you to pull over. Maybe you know why, but maybe you don’t. Either way, what you do next can have a big impact on your legal future. Follow these steps to help protect yourself.

1. Pull Over Safely

When a police car follows you with the emergency lights flashing. you know you’re supposed to pull over to the right. Keep in mind, however, that it’s up to you to maintain safety both for yourself and others on the road. Slow down, use your turn signal, and pull over as far to the right as you safely can. Choosing a parking lot or less busy side street is always better than stopping on a busy street.

Stop the car, turn the engine off, and place both hands on the steering wheel. Instruct all passengers to remain where they are.

2. Be Courteous

Next, roll down your window about halfway and if it’s dark, turn on your interior light so the officer can see you. Remember that police officers often face dangerous situations during traffic stops. Anything you can do to put the officer at ease will help the interaction go more smoothly.

Stay in the car unless the officer gives you other instructions, and don’t start rummaging for your papers until you’re asked. You have the right to ask the officer for proper identification if you wish.

3. Protect Yourself

You are under no obligation to admit to any wrongdoing or to answer questions about where you’re going or where you’ve been.

If you’re asked other questions such as whether you’re a U.S. citizen and you’d rather not say, simply state that you are exercising your right to remain silent. During your conversation with the officer, stay calm, and don’t take anything he or she says personally. Simply answer the questions as straightforwardly as you can and follow any instructions you’re given. Remember that you don’t have to admit to anything.

4. Consider Your Rights in a Search

A simple traffic violation usually does not give a police officer permission to search your vehicle. There are other things you may do, however, that would give the officer that permission, including the following. Be aware of these:

  • Probable cause: The officer believes there is evidence of a crime in your vehicle. He must have some facts or evidence showing you may be involved in criminal activity. A “hunch” is not enough, but the sight or smell of contraband or an admission of guilt would allow a search.
  • Protection: The officer reasonably believes a search is necessary for his/her own protection (as there may be a hidden weapon, for instance).
  • Arrest: You were arrested previously and the search is related to that arrest.
  • Consent: You give the officer consent to search the vehicle.

You do have the right to refuse a search request. That doesn’t mean the officer won’t search your vehicle, but your objection can help in a later legal proceeding. Just make sure you verbally state your preference: “I do not consent to this search.” Do not physically resist.

5. Step Out If Asked

The officer has the right to ask you to step out of the vehicle. It is in your best interest to comply. He or she can also legally pat you down for weapons if there is reason to believe you might be dangerous. If the officer finds a weapon, alcohol, or drugs, he or she has the right to search your vehicle.

What if you have a gun in the car under a concealed carry license? The laws vary by state as to whether you need to notify the officer or not. Be aware of your state’s laws and follow them.

Remember that you don’t have to answer probing questions. Simply refer to your right to remain silent.

Talk to a Lawyer If Necessary

There are three typical outcomes of a traffic stop:

  • You are warned and allowed to proceed.
  • You are issued a citation.
  • You are arrested.

If you feel you were ticketed or arrested unfairly, talk to a personal injury attorney for help in how to manage your case in court.