Seeing flashing lights in your rear view mirror is nerve-wracking and stressful. Immediately most people get anxious and stressed and start recounting the last few minutes in their head:
- “Was I speeding?”
- “Is my registration expired?”
- “What did I do wrong?”
If you are pulled over by a police officer, there are a few things you can do and should know to make the experience a little less stressful.
Safety: Both you and the officer that pulled you over want to be as safe as possible. The entire interaction can be dangerous depending on what roadway you’re on (side streets or major highways), the time of day, the weather, or any combination of these factors. The first thing you should do as the driver is make sure you pull over to a place that is safe for both you and the officer behind you. This does not mean that you can drive an additional fifteen miles back to your driveway, but this does mean you can take some additional time to find a larger shoulder or a well-lit part of the roadway. Always pull over to the right side of the road, use a signal when pulling over or changing lanes, and pull over as far as you can off to the side of the road.
Relax. After you stop, try to take a deep breath and relax. You should turn on your hazard lights, roll down your driver’s side window enough to communicate clearly, turn off your engine, keep your hands on the steering wheel, turn your interior lights on, and keep your seat-belt fastened. All of these actions will make the officer feel safer about the exchange he or she is about to have with you, and none of these actions do anything to incriminate you in any way. Do not go rummaging through your glove compartment or bags to find your license and registration until instructed to do so. If an officer approaches your vehicle and sees you rummaging through things, it may make them uneasy and nervous. Never under any circumstances should you exit the vehicle unless instructed to do so.
Interaction: The next step is the interaction with the police officer, and there are two things you should remember:
- There is a difference between a question and a lawful order.
- Anything you say, no matter how harmless, can be used to incriminate you.
Question or Order:
Although it is typically the best policy to politely answer all of a police officer’s questions, you are not required to do so. If a police officer asks you a question, you have a choice in your responses. For instance, if a police officer asks “do you know why I pulled you over today?” You have a choice on how to answer. If a police officer gives a lawful order, on the other hand, you do not necessarily have a choice, and refusing to comply can lead to negative consequences. Often, there will be a bit of gray area between whether an officer is asking you a question or giving you an order. If you are unsure, you can politely ask: “Officer, do I have to answer that question?”
If an officer asks “do you know why I pulled you over today?” he or she is asking you a question. Since it is a question, you are free to give whatever response you would like, or no response at all. Police officers are free to write down what you say and use your answers later as admissions of guilt when you appear in court. Therefore remaining silent regarding matters that may ultimately incriminate you is always the smartest choice.
If an officer asks “do you mind if I search your vehicle?” this is also a question. They are asking for your permission. Like any other question, you have the option of saying “yes,” or “no.” However, you should keep in mind that if a police officer had the authority to search your vehicle, they would not ask your permission, they would simply do it.
The best advice is to be courteous to the arresting officer in response to questions. We have never had a client make things worse by remaining silent or advising the officer that they do not want to respond until they have talked with counsel.
If an officer says “license and registration,” or to “step outside of your vehicle,” or “turn off your engine,” then he or she has given you an order and it is in your best interests to follow their orders.
Driving Away: The final step after being pulled over is to drive away safely. In a stressful time like this, many people forget the simple things they are supposed to do. Be sure to put your seatbelt on if you have taken it off, before you drive away, turn your headlights on and use your turn signal when safely exiting the shoulder of the road.