How to handle a traffic stop and understand your rights as a driver or passenger
You’re driving to your destination, paying attention to the road, when you hear the sirens. Either way, you know what to expect: the general nervousness, the tense questions. But drivers and passengers have general citizen rights that police can’t violate, protecting you under state and federal law. Knowing your rights can save you time, money and potential legal trouble.
Talk to a lawyer for professional adviceWe can research the law, helping you interpret what it means. But we’re not lawyers, and this article is not intended to be taken as legal advice. If you’re looking for legal assistance, contact a lawyer or other legal expert.
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Topics on this page
- What are the laws?
- When can police search my vehicle?
- What happens when police officers violate the law?
- Frequently asked questions
What are the laws if an officer pulls me over?
The rights of motorists that kick in after a traffic stop can vary by state laws, as can the legal outcomes of specific situations — such as a routine traffic stop that escalates to an arrest.
Keep in mind a few key protections and how they apply if you’re stopped by police.
10 things to remember about your rights as a driver
- You can wait to pull over right away if it’s not safe.
- Officers require probable cause to pull you over.
- You can stay in your vehicle during a traffic stop.
- You can call on your Fifth Amendment right to stay quiet.
- You don’t have to take a roadside breathalyzer test.
- You have to stop at police checkpoints if you’re selected.
- You can record encounters with police.
- Police can search your vehicle with enough reason.
- The laws about traffic stops in each state are often different.
- You can protest an illegal stop with legal help.
You have the right of safety.
If you’re on a busy highway or on a dark part of the road with no other vehicles around, you aren’t required to stop on the roadside if you think it looks unsafe. That could mean avoiding stopping on a busy road, a dangerous street or narrow shoulder in favor of finding a well lit parking lot or the next highway exit.
That’s not to say you can drive on infinitely with a police car trying to pull you over. But if you slow down and turn on your blinker or hazard lights, you have the right to proceed a short distance until you’re able to stop safely. Just indicate to the police officer that you’re trying to comply.
Officers require probable cause.
For a traffic stop to be legal, police must have probable cause to take a closer look at you or your vehicle. Probable cause, however, is broad. It could be something as minor as an air freshener — many states technically prohibit hanging anything from your rearview mirror if it can possibly hinder your view of the road ahead.
After the officer demonstrates probable cause for a traffic stop, they can investigate anything suspicious they see, hear or smell in your car.
You’re allowed to remain in your vehicle.
An officer might ask you to step out of the vehicle, maybe checking to see if you’re under the influence of alcohol or drugs. But the law allows you to refuse the request, instead remaining in the driver’s seat.
Refusing to exit your vehicle when asked by an officer is likely to make them suspicious. This could potentially result in a full search of you and your car. A police officer might also consider your refusal resisting or obstructing the law.
You have the right to remain silent.
After an officer pulls you over, they will likely ask you a series of questions. If you feel that you have nothing to hide, cooperating with the police officer as much as possible can alleviate the tension.
But the law supports your refusal to answer any or all of them. Simply refusing to talk can make the situation more difficult, so you may need to verbally invoke the Fifth Amendment to remain silent.
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You can refuse a roadside sobriety test.
If asked to blow into a breathalyzer during a traffic stop, you’re allowed to refuse. However, refusing means that an officer has the right to take you to a police station or hospital, where you could be subject to a blood or urine test.
Taking or refusing the roadside breathalyzer test can have specific consequences that depend on your state and how much you’ve had to drink:
- In New York and several other states, you’re subject to a separate penalty for refusing a roadside test. The state can suspend your driver’s license for an entire year, even if you were never drinking in the first place.
- In Oklahoma and other states, if your BAC is 0.15 higher, you can face aggravated DUI charges, which are far more severe than your typical DUI charge. If you think you might be in that range when an officer stops you, refusing that first test and waiting for a more controlled test at the hospital or police station might be worth it.
Lawyers frequently advise the public to blow into a breathalyzer during a traffic stop if an officer asks you to. A roadside breathalyzer typically won’t hold up in court as well as more controlled tests that take place in a hospital or police station. If your lawyer can prove that the roadside test was inaccurate or not administered correctly, it could work in your favor later.
You must stop at police checkpoints.
If you see a police checkpoint ahead on the road, you’re required to stop if your vehicle is selected. Police officers typically don’t check every vehicle that comes through a checkpoint — it’s often every other vehicle or every third one — but if yours is selected, expect to present your driver’s license, proof of car insurance and car registration.
You can record encounters with police using a dash camera.
Using a dash cam can help you in certain scenarios during a police stop. No federal law outlaws dashcams, but take care not to run afoul of other laws in the process. For example, some states prohibit mounting anything on the windshield, including a dashcam, because it could possibly obstruct the driver’s view.
Other laws pertain to legal surveillance. Depending on the state you’re in and whether you live in a one party or two party consent state, it could be against the law to record the conversations of your passengers without explicitly announcing that you’re doing so. If you plan to use a dash camera, especially when it comes to encounters with law enforcement, it’s best to be above-board and transparent about any recording devices in use.
It’s also worth noting that while you’re legally allowed to record an encounter with police, and may want to do so if you think the recordings can help you later, it can make a tense situation even worse if the officer tells you to stop recording and you refuse to comply.
When can police search my vehicle?
If an officer has a warrant to search your vehicle, you don’t have a choice — you’re legally required to allow them to.
But in several situations, police are allowed to search your vehicle even without a warrant.
- After you’ve given consent. If you tell police they are allowed to conduct a search, they have the right to do so. Anything they find during a search you’ve consented to is fair game for issuing a ticket or pursuing legal action against you.
- When something is in the open. The plain-view doctrine allows police to investigate if contraband or illegal substances are clearly visible to an officer during a traffic stop. For example, if an officer sees drug paraphernalia lying on the floor of your car, they have enough reason to perform a full legal search on your vehicle without needing a warrant.
- When you are arrested. If the police have enough evidence to justify arresting you during a traffic stop, they’re allowed to search your car as well.
- When police have reasonable suspicion. There’s a lot of gray area with this one, but “reasonable suspicion” is meant to give police the chance to investigate whenever they consider it necessary. It’s not illegal for you to insist staying in the driver’s seat, and it’s also not illegal to, say, have something suspicious in your car, even something that looks like blood smeared inside your car, for example. But these situations are enough for an officer to think you might be up to no good. If officers choose to, they can claim reasonable suspicion about your appearance or behavior to justify a search.
- When there are high priority circumstances. If an officer thinks you’re about to destroy or hide evidence, they may be allowed to break the law to get their hands on that evidence. That means if you’re pulled over and appear frantic to hide or discard an object, an officer can use your behavior as justification to conduct a legal search right then.
What happens when police officers violate the law?
Occasionally, an officer stops a driver for a minor traffic violation and then goes beyond the legal limits to investigate the situation. In these cases, the driver becomes a victim of the officer’s abuse of power.
If this happens to you, you can often pursue legal action or file a civil suit against the officer, the police department, the city or even the state.
Not every police officer performing a traffic stop, vehicle search or other investigation is worth going to court over. But if you feel that you are the victim of an especially bad stop in which a law enforcement officer acted unreasonably or crossed a line, consult with a lawyer to see what your options are.
A major lawsuit — and win — in a traffic assault
A well-publicized case of a traffic stop that severely violated a driver’s rights involved a driver who was stopped by police for failing to heed a stop sign. One of the officers ordered the driver out of the vehicle on the suspicion that he was hiding drugs on his body.
Based on that suspicion, officers obtained a search warrant and took the driver to a medical center, where he received invasive bodily searches throughout the night — all of which failed to find any drugs. He was released in the morning, after police concluded they had nothing to charge him with.
As a result of his serious invasion of privacy and emotional stress, the driver filed a civil suit against the police department that was eventually settled for $1.6 million in the victim’s favor.
While nothing can guarantee a smooth interaction with law enforcement during a traffic stop, you can protect yourself legally and increase the chances of a favorable outcome by knowing your rights and allowable actions as a citizen. If you’re in doubt about the law or a specific situation involving the police, talk with a lawyer or your car insurance agent who can direct you toward the best course of action.
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