During jury selection last week, we briefly discussed the unfortunate phenomenon in our culture of violent police interactions. I have no intention of using this forum to espouse any specific opinion on that topic, to attempt to vilify or justify any behavior on any side of the issue. But I was struck by one aspect of the conversation.
One prospective juror indicated that no one had ever told him what to do if he was stopped by the police. Most people probably have never really talked about how police encounters are conducted. Data from the Department of Justice (Bureau of Justice Statistics) suggests that around 12% of U.S. motorists get pulled over in any given year. So, if you drive, your chances are better than one in ten that you may have one of these encounters with police.
So what should you do?
This is not legal advice. No attorney-client relationship is created, intended or should be inferred from this communication. I offer some information based on my experience as a motorist, as someone who has reviewed literally thousands of traffic stops, as someone who has spoken to members of law enforcement, and as someone who has interviewed hundreds of people who have been stopped by the police. Some rules and customs vary by state. My comments are related to my New York State experience. What follows is not a discussion of the legal requirements under the law. It is not an examination of your constitutional rights as a citizen. It is simply some words that reflect my opinion of the best practices to ensure that these tense and unnerving interactions go as smoothly as possible.
When you realize that a car is behind you with its lights flashing
As soon as you recognize that any vehicle displaying flashing red lights is behind you, you should slow down and move to the right shoulder of the roadway to stop and allow the vehicle to pass. If the vehicle follows behind you and also stops, prepare yourself for a police encounter. Be sure that you are as far to the right as you can safely move your car and do not position your vehicle where it or the police car will block a side street, highway exit/entrance or other traffic.
After you have pulled over, shift your vehicle into park. Roll the driver’s window down all the way. If it is possible, roll all of the windows down. If it is dark, turn on your interior light. A police officer approaching a motor vehicle stop is on high alert. They are trained to observe what is happening within the vehicle they are approaching. If you allow them to see into your car to observe what you are doing, they should be more at ease. You should turn off the engine and place the keys on the dashboard, where the officer will be able to see them when he gets to your window. You should put the heels of your hands on the top of the steering wheel so that the officer can see them as he approaches, and he will quickly be able to determine that they are empty. Do not reach for your wallet, the glove compartment or anywhere else in the vehicle. These types of actions can be interpreted as “furtive movements” and may unnecessarily raise the officer’s suspicions. In extreme cases, such movements alone can be used to justify removing you from your vehicle and detaining you while your vehicle is searched. Just sit still and wait.
The officer will often identify themselves by name or at least police agency. This probably seems redundant, particularly because they are usually in uniform and driving a marked police car, but this is what often happens. They may either declare their reason for the stop or ask you if you know why they stopped you. Remember, anything you say can be used against you. If you get pulled over and tell the cop that it’s because you just ran that red light, he can testify to that at your trial. I know, I got convicted because of that once. You are under no obligation to admit anything. If you say that you don’t know why he pulled you over, it won’t strengthen your defense – but it probably won’t hurt it, either. Usually, the cop will tell you and then move on to the investigation phase of the interaction.
When the cop asks for your license
Don’t carry your wallet in your back pocket while you drive. If your wallet is in the center console or on the passenger seat, the officer will be able to see it when he asks for your license. Wherever it is, tell the officer before you move your hands off of the steering wheel. “My license is in my wallet, on the passenger seat.” Often, the officer will tell you to go ahead and get it. Do so without making any sudden or unnecessary movements. Take you license out of your wallet and hand it to him. If you hand over your whole wallet, he can look in your whole wallet. You probably have no reason to hide anything, but he probably has no reason to look, either. Why give him the option? If he asks for registration or insurance information, tell him where that is. Having motorist rummaging through their glove compartment while he stands in traffic may be dangerous or annoying the officer and he might tell you not to bother getting them. His vehicle may have a computer which has access to the DMV data, or he can call dispatch, and they can look up most of that information anyway. Return the heels of your hands to the steering wheel and sit quietly. The officer might ask some questions about where you are traveling to and from, and verify the information you have provided. During this investigation, he is assessing your credibility and demeanor as much as actually gaining information. This is often when the officer decides whether to write a citation or merely issue a warning. While you may have a right to remain silent, he also may have a right to put you in the back of his car take you downtown. Pick your battles wisely.
When the cop goes back to their car
There usually comes a point in the interaction when the officer says something to the effect of “I’m going to go check your license” or “I’m going to go write you a ticket” or “I’ll be right back” and asks you to stay put. Keep your hands on the steering wheel and sit still. He is sitting in his car, running your driving history, checking for warrants, and otherwise verifying the information you offered him. This is the last chance for him to decide whether or not to write you a ticket. If you are sitting quietly with your hands where he can see them, he can concentrate on that decision instead of worrying about what you might be reaching for. This process can feel like it takes a long time. Be patient. Your behavior and demeanor during this part of the interaction may influence the officer’s treatment of you.
When he returns
He will likely return your documents to you, and may also give you a ticket. If he does, take it and listen to his explanation. Some equipment violations will be dismissed if the problem is corrected within a certain time period. Some tickets can be resolved without a court appearance, some cannot. Some jurisdictions require that the ticket be mailed to the court with either a guilty plea or not guilty plea, some are printed with a court date right on them. The officer will probably explain to you how to answer the ticket. If he has decided to give you a ticket, nothing can be done to change that at this point. Arguing or being rude will not make it better, and could make things much worse. The officer may very well contact the prosecutor – particularly if you are difficult – and influence the way that the matter is handled in court.
Ending the interaction
After your documents have been returned, and the officer has told you whatever he is going to tell you, he will usually say that he is finished and that you are free to go. Start your engine and signal before you pull away from the roadside. Do so safely and legally, or you should expect to be pulled over again, by that same officer, immediately. And his decision whether or not to write you a ticket will be easy. Generally, showing courtesy to the officer will go a long way towards making the interaction as safe and pleasant as possible. If you need to fight it out, do it in court, not on the side of the road.
Obviously, these are general recommendations made under the assumption that there are no unusual circumstances or aggravating factors. If the officer thinks you are driving a stolen car, are intoxicated, don’t have a license or are transporting large quantities of bootleg movies, the interaction will go differently. But if the cop thinks you were going a little fast, didn’t come to a full stop, or some other minor traffic infraction, remembering these recommendations should make the interaction go smoothly. If you do find yourself issued a ticket or otherwise facing criminal charges, contact an attorney with the experience and expertise to help you secure the best result. Call 585-519-4117 to schedule a consultation.