Updated March 18, 2016
When a police officer begins to pull you over, what you do and say can have a huge effect on any legal proceedings that might follow. Whether the traffic stop ends in a simple moving violation or an arrest for a more serious crime, your choices are critical.
If a police car is following you with its siren blaring or emergency lights flashing, pull over to the right quickly (but safely) and come to a complete stop in a safe place.
Pulling over right away isn't an admission of guilt. It just means that you were alert to everything that was happening around you. Also, by stopping as soon as you can, you’ll have a better chance of figuring out exactly where and how the officer says you violated any traffic laws. This information can be useful should you and a lawyer later need to prepare a defense.
Pull over in a way that will be most likely to calm down an angry or annoyed traffic officer. Use your turn signal to indicate any lane changes from left to right, and slow down fairly quickly, but not so quickly that the officer will have to brake to avoid hitting you. Pull over as far to the right as possible, so that the officer won’t have to worry about being clipped by vehicles in the right lane when coming up to your window.
After you’ve pulled over to a safe spot, you should normally turn off your engine. At this point, you might want to show the officer a few other token courtesies. You have little to lose and perhaps something to gain.
Roll down your window all the way. Put out a cigarette if you have one and discard any chewing gum (within the car). You might also want to place your hands on the steering wheel, and, if it’s dark, turn on your interior light. These actions will tend to allay any fears the officer might have. After all, police officers have been killed in traffic-stop situations, and the officer’s approach to the vehicle is potentially the most dangerous moment.
Your dignity might be offended a little at this point, but remember that you’re just doing a few simple things to put the officer in an optimal frame of mind.
Also, stay in the car until and unless the officer directs you to get out. Finally, don’t start rummaging through your back pocket for your wallet and license, or in your glove compartment for your registration, until the officer asks you for them. For all the officer knows, you could be reaching for a weapon.
A police officer who stops you for a traffic violation is normally not allowed to search your vehicle. But there are several exceptions to this general rule. (For much more on them, and on this topic generally, see our articles on car searches by police.)
After pulling you over, an officer will watch for any sort of "furtive movement." A sudden lowering of one or both shoulders, for example, will tip the officer off that you’re attempting to hide something under the seat.
An officer enforcing a traffic stop isn’t looking just for furtive movements. Officers will look for anything incriminating that’s in “plain view” (like open beer or wine bottles, joints, or roach clips). Discovery of one item in plain view often leads to a thorough search that reveals more incriminating or illegal objects.
If you’re arrested and your car is towed, the police may generally make an “inventory search" afterward, even if they have no reason to suspect there's anything illegal inside.
STATE LAW MIGHT FACTOR IN
This article discusses principles relating to the U.S. Constitution as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court. State law can, however, provide more protections.
An officer who stops you for an alleged traffic violation has the right to insist that you and your passengers get out of your car. (Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106 (1977); Maryland v. Wilson, 519 U.S. 408 (1997).) Clearly, you should get out if asked or instructed to do so. Simply put: You should follow the officer’s directives but begin with the assumption that you should remain in the car. And you should also assume that the officer is on alert, ready to interpret a failure to follow instructions as a threat of danger or an attempt to flee.
An officer who has any reason to suspect that you might be dangerous has a right to conduct a quick “pat-down” search of your outer clothing. (Arizona v. Johnson, 555 U.S. 323 (2009).) Upon feeling any weapon-like object during the pat-down, the officer may reach in and get it. The officer can also seize anything during a proper frisk for weapons that obviously feels like contraband.
Also, if the police officer reasonably believes you’re dangerous and might gain control of weapons, the officer may search areas within the passenger compartment in which a weapon could be placed or hidden. (Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032 (1983).)
WHAT ABOUT MY CELLPHONE?
What if the officer asks to search your cellphone? May you politely decline? The rule is that officers generally may not search cellphones without warrants—or your consent. For more, see Cellphone Searches After Arrest.
Being hostile has led to many a problem with police officers. So too has saying more than necessary.
You should generally let the officer do the talking, responding where appropriate. For example, when asked to hand over your license, registration, and proof of insurance, you should say something like, “Okay,” or, “Sure,” and fork over the documents.
Some lawyers caution that an officer who pulls you over for a traffic violation has decided whether to give you a ticket before approaching your car. (They also acknowledge that you can convince an officer who was going to give you a warning to give you a ticket through rude behavior.) These lawyers warn that officers will sometimes act as though they might change their minds if you cooperate so that they can get information or an admission out of you.
It can be tough to know exactly what to say to an officer’s queries, but whatever you do, you shouldn’t argue. And you should know that you have a right to remain silent, although you might have to actually say something to invoke that right. (See Invoking Your Right to Remain Silent.)
Simple traffic violations often don’t require the assistance of an attorney. More serious accusations—like a charge of driving under the influence or possession of drugs—often do. If you want to know how the law in your state applies to your situation, consult an experienced criminal defense attorney. A knowledgeable lawyer can determine whether there might be a basis for a motion to suppress evidence and otherwise guide you through the process.