We rely on the police to keep us safe and treat us all fairly, regardless of race, ethnicity, national origin or religion. This information provides tips for interacting with police and understanding your rights and is excerpted in part by the ACLU – American Civil Liberties Union, the Raleigh Police Department and various other sources.
Driving is a Privilege, Not a Right
Driving is not a constitutional right. You get your drivers’ license based on the skills you have and the rules you agree to follow. After you get your drivers’ license you must continue to demonstrate your ability to drive safely on the road. If you fail to demonstrate this ability, you will be issued traffic tickets, or even have your license suspended or revoked. No one has more right to the road than anyone else. If you’re going to drive, you owe it to the other roadway users and yourself to operate the vehicle in a safe manner.
During my career in Law Enforcement, I have had many opportunities to encounter civilians during “routine” traffic stops – enough to know that there is NO SUCH THING AS A ROUTINE TRAFFIC STOP! Every person is different, every circumstance is different and every story is different. The cars and the locations are the only part of the whole scenario that hardly ever changes. Here are a few basic Rights that you, as a civilian, have when dealing with Law Enforcement during a traffic stop. These tips are not to be construed or used as Legal Advice. Do your own research and use accordingly.
There’s no magic word, handshake or gesture to get you “off the hook”. Every LEO (Law Enforcement Officer) is different and each Officer has their own way of doing things (within the law). What you must remember is that LEO’s are human beings – they are people just like me and you and they are all subject to peer pressure, mood swings, bad days, good days, etc. Most of the time their interactions with you are strictly business and you should not take it personally. They have a job to do – just like you when you go to work. They have supervisors who tell them what to do and give them parameters to work within – who also give them grief during the day and push for performance.
Now with that being said – there is a lot that can go wrong during one of these encounters regardless of whether you are guilty or not.
Most traffic encounters can be stressful, but everyone involved (even the Officer) all want the same thing – they want to get through it as quickly and safely as possible and get on with the rest of their day. Remember – Driving is a Privilege – Not a Right!
Your Rights Explained:
1. Be ready (Have your Documents in a location that is easily accessible)
We’ll start from the beginning. Just as soon as you see that you are being pulled over, immediately put your turn signal on, slow down and safely come to a stop on the shoulder of the road. If it is dark and you feel unsafe, you can drive slowly to a more lighted area if possible. Once you get your vehicle stopped, put your car in park, turn down your radio, if it’s dark outside, turn on your interior lights and roll your window down so that you can communicate with the Officer. Attitude is key at this point. If the Officer sees that you are going to be hard to deal with, you will most likely have a rough time getting through the traffic stop quickly and in your favor. Officers have a vast arsenal of charges that they can charge you with so tread lightly.
2. Probable cause (Know what you’re being stopped for).
The Officer should tell you why you’ve been pulled over right away. You have a right to know why you were stopped, and officers need a reason to stop you. This is known as probable cause, and it can be for anything, including a license plate light being out or speeding. If the officer fails to tell you why they pulled you over, don’t be afraid to ask; it’s your right to know.
3. You don’t have to say much (But keep your hands visible at all times)!
In a routine traffic stop, you will need to provide your Drivers’ License, Vehicle Registration, Proof of Insurance, and you may have to answer some basic identifying questions. Many people in North Carolina lawfully carry different types of weapons. You should notify the officer as to the presence of these weapons. For example, if you are a law-abiding gun owner who is carrying during your stop, let the officer know about the presence of your gun. When the officer asks for these documents or items, let him know that you are going to reach for them and state where they are at. This will help put the officer at ease with what you plan to do with your hands. Other than that, you can be as quiet as you want to be. Remember: Staying silent means you can’t incriminate yourself. Essentially if you are pulled over for speeding, tail lights, running a stop sign or some other violation of the vehicle code you are not required to answer unrelated questions. As a matter of common sense you should be polite to the officer who pulled you over but you are not required to answer questions unrelated to your car (i.e. ‘were you drinking tonight,’ ‘where have you been’ etc.). You are required to give the officer your license, registration and insurance card. You are not required to give the officer consent to search your vehicle nor are you required to talk with him if you don’t want to.
4. Film away (Record-keeping isn’t a bad idea).
Relations between the police and certain communities aren’t great right now. For safety and evidence purposes, some Law Enforcement Agencies have started to use body cameras, so there’s a record of virtually every interaction between police and the citizens. But if you want to take matters into your own hands, it’s perfectly legal to film or record a traffic stop, so you have a record of the interaction, especially if you think you might need to dispute something later.
5. An attitude isn’t illegal (There’s no law against this, but we wouldn’t recommend it).
At the end of the day, police officers are doing a job and want their days to go as smoothly as possible. There’s no law governing etiquette for dealing with an officer, and you can’t be arrested for having a bad attitude. But being difficult won’t do you any favors either. In fact, it’s probably the easiest way to make a tense situation go bad. If you’re being mistreated, fighting fire with fire isn’t going to help you at a traffic stop. “Any level-headed person who gets pulled over does what a police officer tells you, and there won’t be any problems. Whether the cop is wrong, you can hash it out in courts after it’s over.” Comply with all reasonable requests. When stopped, please follow the officer’s instructions. This is not the appropriate time to debate the merits of a traffic stop. Let your attorney handle that in the courtroom.
6. Do not get out of your car (unless instructed to by the Officer).
More often than not, when a police officer asks you to step out of the car, it’s for their own safety. They either want to make sure you don’t have a concealed weapon on you or issue a field sobriety test. Do not exit your vehicle unless the officer tells you to do so. Once again, this is true for passengers as well. Simply remain inside your car until the officer has a chance to speak with you.
7. You can refuse a breathalyzer test (Even exercising this right might land you in jail).
This one is a double-edged sword. If you’re asked to submit to a breathalyzer test, remember you’re being asked, not ordered. Still, many states have implied consent laws, which mean you automatically consent to the test as soon as you get your license. If you refuse, you can still be arrested and charged with a DUI based on evidence presented by arresting officers. Either way, being in this scenario is a no-win situation.
8. Know where you stand
Most officers want traffic stops to be as quick as possible. But if you’re in a situation where you’ve had your documents returned but you’re still being questioned by the officer, you’re well within your rights to say, “I need to be going. Am I free to go?” If the answer isn’t a clear “yes,” you can ask, “Am I being detained?” If you’re not allowed to leave, it’s time to stop talking and think about getting a lawyer.
9. Don’t allow a search for any reason (Innocent or not, don’t ever do this).
Sometimes, an officer will nonchalantly ask, “Mind if I take a look in your car?” Innocent or not, do not ever consent to this; no good ever comes of it. The only way an officer can search your car is if you consent, if you have something illegal in plain view, if they’ve already arrested you, if they have probable cause that a crime has immediately been committed, or if there’s danger that evidence from a crime could be immediately destroyed. Other than that, they need a warrant. End of story.
10. Warrants and checkpoints are (mostly) non-negotiable
If you’re driving and come to a police checkpoint, you need to stop and interact with the officers. There really isn’t a lot of wiggle room there. And in the event police have a warrant to search your car, you must let them search. But there is a catch: If they’re looking for a specific object, they only can search areas where that object can fit. If police start searching outside the parameters of the warrant, they’re violating your rights.
So there you have it – remember this is just a guide and is not meant as Legal Advice – If you feel that you have been discriminated against or treated unfairly, make sure that you report it to someone. Everyone has a boss or someone that they report to – even the Police!