Oh Crap, A Cop’s Pulling Me Over – Now What? Or What to do (and not do) during a traffic stop.

By Martin J. Yeager, Esquire

traffic stop

The blue lights and headlights flash behind you.  Your palms sweat. Your heart races as you pull over. A look in the rear-view mirror reveals an officer speaking on his radio. You’re stopped by the police.

What do you do?

  1. Calm Yourself. Now is the time for clear thinking (or thinking as clearly as you can if certain ingested substances make thinking difficult).

If the officer is still in his cruiser, get your driver’s license, registration and insurance information. These documents should be at your immediate reach – not buried in a mess of receipts, paperwork and other junk found in your glove compartment. Wait with the documents in your hand, ready to give them to the officer.

If the officer has left his cruiser, wait with your hands on the steering wheel for him to come to your window. Your driver’s window should be down and your hands should remain visible at all times. This is very important because a police officer is at his most vulnerable during a traffic stop. Sudden movements lead to unfortunate consequences.

  1. Be Polite and Cooperative. This is by far the most important instruction as it can mean the difference between receiving a ticket and just a warning.  The traffic stop interaction is your best opportunity to avoid a ticket, or to receive leniency from the officer, not later in court.

Remember that while the officer isn’t your friend in this situation, he’s also not your enemy.  If you are difficult with the officer, he’ll be difficult with you. On the other hand, he will usually remember if you’re polite and courteous and report this to the Court, which matters. Judges in Maryland and Virginia ask the officer whether the defendant was polite and courteous before imposing a sentence.  Aside from proper etiquette, acting how Miss Manners taught you can make a difference in the outcome of your matter.

  1. Follow the Officer’s Instructions, but Don’t Volunteer Anything. Everyone has seen “Miranda Warnings” (“you have the right to remain silent…”) given on television and in the movies. But very few people listen to or follow them.  These simple warnings instruct how you can best protect yourself.

The first warning is that you may remain silent, but that if you give up the right to remain silent, anything that you say or do will be used against you. A police officer’s a trained professional.  When he stops you for a traffic violation or worse, his job is to gather evidence that can convict you of that traffic infraction or crime. While you must remain polite and courteous, you don’t need to help him convict you. If he asks you how fast you were going, you shouldn’t give him a number that is higher than the speed limit.  If you do, he’ll write that “admission” in his notes, and you’ll be convicted of doing at least that speed.  If he asks you if you were racing with the car next to him, you shouldn’t say you were, and never say “at least I won” (four words that cost a young driver 3 days in jail). Don’t lie, just stay silent.

The second Miranda warning is you have the right to an attorney and if you can’t afford one, the court will appoint one for you at no charge. In any interrogation setting, the magic words, “I want to speak with a lawyer” require the police to stop questioning you.  You must ask for the assistance of a lawyer in very definite terms.  It is not good enough to ask the officer if he thinks that you should see a lawyer, or that you think that you should speak with a lawyer. You must specifically ask for the assistance of a lawyer. Use the magic words. They might just keep you out of jail.

  1. You don’t have to agree to a search.

When making a traffic stop, the officer’s job is to investigate if you are doing or carrying anything else that is unlawful.  An officer will carry out this duty by searching you and your automobile, but he can only do this with a court issued warrant or under very limited circumstances. Unless you give him your permission, or consent, to search.  You don’t have to do this. Consenting to a search doesn’t win you any points, and could (if you have something in you don’t want found) prove very costly.  When the officer asks for your consent to search something, always say no, politely and courteously, but firmly.  If the officer then searches without your permission, you’ve at least not waived your constitutional rights.

Good luck, drive safely and remember these tips if you ever have an encounter with law enforcement for something more than retrieving a cat in a tree.

If you need advice related to Criminal Law, DWI, DUI or other traffic stop related citations, or would like assistance with any other matter, please contact Marty at Land, Carroll and Blair, PC, in Alexandria and Fairfax, VA at:

(703) 836-1000






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