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/or federal laws. Knowing your rights can save you time, money and potential legal trouble.
Talk to a lawyer for professional advice
We can research the law, helping you interpret what it means. But we’re not lawyers who can speak to your exact situation, and this article is not intended to be taken as legal advice. If you’re looking for legal assistance or have questions about a specific situation, contact a lawyer or other legal expert.
What are the laws if an officer pulls me over?
The rights of drivers and passengers 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.
For example, an officer needs a reason, called “reasonable suspicion,” to pull you over in the first place. That can be anything from speeding or not signaling a turn to having expired plates or a broken tail light. And cops also need probable cause to search you or your car during a traffic stop.
Keep in mind a few key protections and how they apply if you’re stopped by police.
Your rights as a driver or passenger
You can wait to pull over right away if it’s not safe.
Officers require reasonable suspicion to pull you over.
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 probabe cause.
The laws about traffic stops in each state are often different.
You can protest an illegal stop with legal help.
Ask an expert: What should you do during a traffic stop?
Turn on your interior lights if you are stopped after dark.
Keep your hands visible or place them on the steering wheel.
Don’t make any furtive movements in the vehicle.
Speak clearly with the police officer.
Produce your driver’s license, proof of insurance and vehicle registration.
You have a right to remain silent, so if you choose to invoke this right, do so in a respectful manner.
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 indefinitely 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.
Police officers require reasonable suspicion to pull you over.
Typically, police officers require a reason to pull you over, like speeding or having a broken tailight. That’s typically called reasonable suspicion, or the cop suspects you’ve broken a driving law. The cop will most likely tell you why they pulled you over. If a cop asks you if you know why you were pulled over, you might consider simply asking why instead of admitting fault to avoid incriminating yourself.
During the stop, a cop might check your license and registration to make sure you’re legally allowed to drive. The officer might ask you questions to find out what happened, like if you know the speed limit on that road. If the officer decides there’s a driving infraction, the cop might write you a ticket or give you a warning, which is up to the cop’s discretion.
However, there’s also some grey area here. Just because the cop pulls you over or gives you a ticket doesn’t mean the cop is in the right. Maybe the light was actually yellow when your car was in the intersection, or the nearest speed limit sign had been knocked over. Or the cop might suspect your car is stolen because you’re driving in an area with a high risk of theft.
You can try to convince the cop you weren’t in the wrong, or you can fight the ticket later. Accepting the ticket doesn’t mean you’re accepting fault.
You might be allowed to remain in your vehicle, depending on your state.
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 or concealing a weapon. But in some states, the law allows you to refuse the request and remain in the driver’s seat instead. It’s typically a good idea to stay in your car unless requested to step outside. Check the laws in your state to find out if police officers can legally require you to leave your car.
But keep in mind that 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, which could get you in more trouble.
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 could alleviate the tension and get you back on the road faster.
But the law supports your refusal to answer any or all of an officer’s questions, as long as you let the officer know that’s what you’re doing. Simply refusing to talk can make the situation more difficult, so you may need to verbally invoke the Fifth Amendment to remain silent. Some lawyers may also recommend asking if you’re free to go, or simply saying that you don’t need to answer any questions and would like your lawyer.
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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.
You can be arrested if you fail a field sobriety test, which could include demonstrating being able to walk in a straight line, for example. In most states, you do have the right to request a blood test at the hospital at your own expense within a reasonable amount of time, but you won’t be able to choose what kind of test the officer uses. Refusing to take any test will typically automatically come with a DUI charge and/or license suspension.
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.
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 or record a traffic stop, 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 on-duty police, and may want to do so if you think the recording can help you later, there have been cases where officers have arrested or pressed charges against civilians for recording them. These cases are typically made under the pretext of obstruction of justice or violating recording consent laws, and they’re almost always dismissed, but be aware of the possibility that police might arrest you for exercising your legal right to record.
Are cops allowed to record me with a body camera?
Some police uniforms are outfitted with body cams. Typically these cameras must remain on, which could be a benefit or a detriment. On the plus side, every action is being recorded, so you can avoid a “he said, she said” situation later. On the down side, because they’re being watched, cops typically can’t let anything minor slide, like an expired tag or broken tail light.
But can you ask a cop to turn it off? The answer is probably no, since the camera is required to be on for traffic stops in most cities.
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. And you’re responsible for anything found in your car during a search, even if you don’t agree with the cause for the search.
Police must have probable cause to take a closer look at you or your vehicle, which means they must have a reason to believe you’re connected with a crime. Probable cause, however, is broad. It could be something as minor as an air freshener, for example — many states technically prohibit hanging anything from your rearview mirror if it can possibly hinder your view of the road ahead. Or maybe the officer who pulls you over suspects you were speeding because you had been drinking and wants to search your car for signs of alcohol.
When could a cop be legally allowed to check my car?
A few common scenarios include:
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’re 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 it’s likely you’ve committed a crime. There’s a lot of gray area with this one, but “probable cause” 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 that looks like a weapon or blood in 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 probable cause 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, for example, that can act as probable cause. 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 to get their hands on that evidence.
What happens when a cop wants to search my car?
After officers demonstrate probable cause, they can investigate anything suspicious they see, hear or smell in your car. They can also do a body search or check your backpack or purse if they suspect you’re hiding drugs or weapons, for both the driver and any passengers.
However, typically cops can’t check anything locked, including a glovebox or a password-locked phone.
Even if you don’t agree with a cop’s reason for pulling you over, or if the probable cause is thin, you’re still responsible for any fines or tickets as a result of the traffic stop. You’re also responsible for anything found in your car if police search your vehicle. That goes for passengers, too.
What should I do during a traffic stop?
As soon as you see the sirens, slow down, put on your turn signal and pull over to a safe spot. Turn off any music or GPS, and turn on the light in your car if it’s dark out. Stay in your car unless the officer asks you to exit.
Keep your hands in plain sight or on the steering wheel, and ask any passengers to do the same for safety. If you’re extra cautious, sometimes it’s a good idea to wait until the officer asks for your license, insurance and registration before rifling through your glovebox. Otherwise a cop might think you’re looking for a weapon or stashing evidence.
Be polite and direct if the cop asks you questions. If the officer asks why they pulled you over, it’s often a good idea to say you don’t know. Otherwise you could be giving the cop evidence of exactly how fast you were going, for example, or admit to a traffic violation the cop isn’t aware of.
Ask an expert: What should you avoid doing during a traffic stop?
Gustavo Mayen Lawyer and Sole Proprietor of the Law Office of Gustavo Mayen
Don’t move around in the vehicle before the police officer gets to you. Wait until the officer arrives to the car, then when he/she asks you for license and registration, let them know where it is at, and ask if you can reach for it. For the most part, the officer is only trying to do his/her job, and their own safety is paramount, so do not give them a reason for them to become more careful of your actions.
Another thing people should not do is offer information that has not been requested, or try to explain themselves in certain situations, as these statements could be used against them if the stop becomes a criminal case or even a civil case if it is something like excessive speeding.
What do cops see when they run my license plate?
When the police put your license plate info in their database, they can see basic info about the car and driver, including the car’s make and model and info available on your driver’s license. The main reason cops check plates is to see if the driver has any current or outstanding driving or criminal charges, such as a suspended license or arrest warrant.
Cops can also pull up info about the driver who registered the vehicle, including license status. That means a cop can pull you over and see you have an expired license or a restricted license. They can also pull your plate numbers before pulling you over and stop you because they see your license is expired.
What happens if I get a ticket?
Don’t try to argue once the ticket is written, even if you don’t agree with why you received the ticket or think the officer behaved incorrectly. Sign the ticket and keep it for reference. You can pull back into traffic safely once the officer lets you know the process is over. You can still fight the ticket in court later, even if it’s a serious offense or you have no proof you were in the right. And it might be a good idea to fight it, since getting a speeding ticket could raise your insurance rates.
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.
The police can’t just pull you over because they feel like it. An officer must have what’s known as “reasonable suspicion” to suspect that you’ve committed a crime or broken the law in some way. So, they either have to have seen you break the law (e.g., witnessed you speeding or running a stop sign) or observe facts that, when considered together, raise a reasonable belief that something is wrong (e.g., observing your inability to maintain your lane of traffic).
If an officer cannot provide a legitimate reason for why you were pulled over – or if their reason sounds really far-fetched – it’s essential to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as you can. If you’re arrested or charged with a crime, your attorney can review your case, determine if your rights were violated, and petition the court to get evidence or your case thrown out.
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.
Frequently asked questions about traffic stops
A traffic stop is when a police officer pulls over your car for a suspected or witnessed infraction, such as going 45 mph in a 30 mph zone or cutting off another driver in a dangerous way.
During a traffic stop, there’s no harm in extending the basic courtesy you would to anybody in a position of authority. In general, addressing a police officer professionally and using good manners could result in a more favorable outcome. That includes saying “please” and “thank you” and keeping your voice at a reasonable volume, unless it’s to make yourself heard over passing traffic.
If you’d rather not say anything to the officer without a lawyer present, you can invoke your Fifth Amendment rights. Telling them you’d rather not answer what you’ve been asked is legally within your rights, but it could make your interaction with the officer less friendly as a result.
Basic documents to keep in your vehicle at all times include your driver’s license, proof of insurance and your vehicle’s registration. Usually the officer will return these items to you before leaving, so you should make sure to get these items back when the officer is done. However, in a few cases, such as a DUI, your license might be taken away, and you might be given a temporary license.
If you don’t have your license or other documents with you, in some states you can ask to provide proof later, or ask the cop to look up your details instead.
If you own special permits, such as one for a concealed weapon or for transporting opened containers of alcohol, you’ll want to keep those handy too. Some alcohol distributors send salespeople to restaurants or stores with samples of beer, wine or liquor. In these instances, a special permit allows that salesperson to carry inside the car an uncorked bottle of wine or a bottle of liquor with a broken seal.
This is a question best answered by an attorney. States enforce different laws that cover what happens after you refuse to take a roadside sobriety test.
That said, most lawyers who publish their opinions say you should never refuse the initial roadside test. Its results aren’t meant to be conclusive and only serve as grounds for more accurate testing if you blow over the limit during a traffic stop. What’s more, that roadside breathalyzer test can give your attorney something to work with if the test is found to be inaccurate or poorly administered in any way.
Refusing to take a breathalyzer test, whether it’s during a traffic stop or in a hospital or police station, could land you into big trouble. In New York, for example, refusing the test can result in severe penalties, even if it turns out you weren’t drinking at all.
Yes, it’s perfectly legal for a cop to run a search for your plate number or VIN, even without reasonable suspicion.
Yes, there’s no law that says cops have to be visible to clock your speed. Many drivers slow down or drive more safely when they spot a cop, so police have learned to find the best hiding spots so they won’t be seen. It’s legal for cops to pull into the median in the highway and face the other direction, for example, even if there’s a sign that says no U-turns.
No, typically that’s not allowed unless you’ve consented to a car search. Officers typically aren’t allowed to grab or physically restrain you unless you’re not cooperating or you’re being arrested.
In most cases, a cop can pull you over, let you go and give you a ticket later, though it’s not very common. Typically you’re required to get a notice of your offense or a court date for a hearing within six months, depending on the state. If you haven’t received one within a reasonable amount of time, either the case has been dropped or the notice got lost in the mail. Check your country records to make sure you didn’t miss a court date that was delivered to the wrong address.
Even if you’ve done nothing wrong and don’t seem threatening, one tactic a police officer might use is to put you on edge by asking strange, unwarranted or aggressive questions. The thinking is you’re more likely to confess to any driving infractions. The same advice from lawyers follows in this situation: the best tactic is to stay polite and not to admit to anything.
If the cops decide it’s a high risk traffic stop, they may take extra precautions to protect their officers. For your own safety, it’s often best to communicate that you’ll follow the instructions and then do what the police say.
You or your passengers might be asked to exit the car immediately and put your hands up or behind your head, and then walk towards the officer or sit on the curb. If you’re unable to follow any instructions, such as if you have a disability or are holding a baby, let the cop know that you would like to comply and why you can’t.
Yes, an office pulling you over may request that you follow them to a safe location, such as a nearby parking lot. If you don’t feel safe at that location, you can request to drive somewhere else, like the police station or a nearby gas station.
It’s a common sight: an abandoned car on the highway with an orange sticker on the windshield, or sometimes a red or yellow sticker. Cops put that sticker on the windshield to mark it as a vehicle abandoned and parked illegally. You have 24 to 72 hours to move your car before it’s towed. But if it’s parked in a dangerous location for other drivers, it could be towed immediately. If you don’t move it in time, you’ll receive a letter from the DMV to the address where the car is registered with info on where the car was towed and how to get it back.
The points system varies by state, but typically minor offenses add only 1 or 2 points to your record up to 4 to 6 points for more serious offenses like a hit and run. Your license might be suspended after a serious offense or getting too many points on your license. Having too many points typically won’t send you to prison, but the offense itself might include jailtime, like a second DUI.
Roslyn McKenna is an insurance expert who's driven to help people get a great deal on insurance to protect their families and finances. Roslyn earned a BA in writing and communications from Maryville College and has written professionally for more than a decade, showing up on Bankrate, MSN and Reader's Digest.
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