Note: This post is for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Contact an attorney for advice with respect to any particular issue or course of action.
In addition, this post relates to traffic stops for minor traffic violations, such as speeding, running a red light, not signaling or a broken taillight. Getting pulled over while intoxicated is whole different story: refer to our separate post on what to do differently in these scenarios (other than avoiding them altogether).
If you’ve ever been pulled over by the police, it’s not an experience you’ll easily forget. The flash of red and blue lights in your rear-view mirror and concurrent siren will assuredly make your heart sink, palms sweat and mind panic. The rush of emotions can also stir all sorts of confusion on how to handle the situation. Where do you pull over? Should you get your license, registration and proof of insurance ready before the officer arrives at your window? Which pick-up lines will work best to get out of this ticket?
Do YOU know how fast you were going when you fell from heaven? Is it illegal to look that fine? Did I tell you that I live next to a Dunkin Donuts? Okay, I’ll stop.
You might find it surprising that the police often find routine traffic stops just as stressful and nerve-wrecking as you. Traffic stops can be extremely dangerous for officers, who frequently face violent attacks, gun fire or even getting hit by oncoming traffic. With this in mind, what you need to remember when pulled over boils down to three main points: (1) slow down and pull over to a safe location, (2) don’t do or say anything to make the officer believe you are a threat and (3) know your rights in case anything goes haywire.
What to Do When Getting Pulled Over
1. Slow down & turn on flashers or turn signal
As soon as you hear the blaring siren or see the officer’s flashing lights, stay calm and start to slow your car down. Turn on your right turn signal or emergency flashers, especially if you believe you will need to drive a longer distance to find a safe location to pull over.
2. Pull over to a safe location
Quickly, but safely, pull over to the right side of the road and come to a complete stop. When doing so, try to avoid anything that would piss off the officer—don’t slam on your breaks, change lanes too quickly or flip the bird. If you need to change lanes from left to right, do so calmly and use your turn signal to allow the officer to easily follow. You should be looking for a spot on the right with a wide shoulder that would provide enough room for your car and the officer to walk to your window without any risk of getting clipped by other vehicles. Alternatively, pull into a parking lot or side-street. If you get pulled over at nighttime, well-lit locations (e.g., under street lights) are preferable.
It’s in your best interest to pull over as soon as safely practicable for a variety of reasons: (1) this shows you were alert to your surroundings, (2) you won’t annoy the cop by making him or her drive further and (3) you can more easily figure out how and where the officer says you violated traffic laws, which can be helpful if you need to prepare a defense with a lawyer at a later date.
3. Turn off car, roll down window and remain still
Once you pull over and come to a complete stop, turn off your engine and roll down your driver-side window. At this point, your best chance of putting yourself in the officer’s good graces—and improve your odds of driving away with only a warning—is to remain calm and still in the car. Do not frantically search through your wallet or glove compartment for your license, registration or proof of insurance; doing so will only heighten the officer’s fears of you searching for a weapon or concealing criminal activity. Rather, wait for the officer to request the documents from you. In addition, do what you can to further put the officer’s uncertainties at ease: turn on your overhead light if it’s dark, turn off your radio and leave your hands on the steering wheel (where the officer can see them). Request any passengers to remain calm and make their hands visible to the officer as well. Remember, dignity aside, any signs of good faith to the officer can only help you.
Importantly, DO NOT get out of your car unless specifically requested to do so by the officer. You will immediately appear to be a threat, creating an unnecessarily difficult situation that could endanger you and the officer (not to mention be an easy way to put yourself behind bars).
4. Consider whether you plan to fight the ticket
Do you know you’re at fault? Perhaps your foot got a bit heavy and you were driving 90 MPH in a school zone (I sure hope not) and have no possible defense. Or maybe you were set on cruise control at the exact speed limit and have no clue why the officer pulled you over. Whether you plan to fight the ticket, and your understanding of the supposed violation, will have a slight impact on how you should plan to interact with the officer, so consider this before the officer approaches.
What to Do When The Officer Arrives at Your Window
1. Be calm, respectful & cooperative
It’s common for you to feel nervous, fearful or even angry when getting pulled over. Take some deep breaths and try to relax. Unless you were driving intoxicated, hiding 15 kilos of meth in the backseat, playing real-life Grand Theft Auto or driving with Aunt Edna on the roof of your car, there’s little to be nervous about. Worst case—in all likelihood, and assuming you cooperate—you’ll get a ticket and face a slight increase in your insurance premiums. BUT if you play your cards right, you can potentially even get out of those. Which leads us to…respect.
Be respectful to the officer. No matter how you feel about the police, it’s in your best interest to show respect and cooperate with any lawful requests (other than providing consent to search your car—more on this below). Generally, being rude or aggressive will only make matters worse and increase your chances of getting a ticket, going to jail or getting seriously injured. On a similar note, don’t act like an entitled prima donna: this will not go over well. Refer to the officer as “sir,” “ma’am” or “officer.” If the officer asks for your license, registration and proof of insurance, hand it over. If the officer asks for your name and address, provide it. If the officer asks you to get out of the car, get out of the car. This is not the time to argue or get hostile; you can settle any disputes afterwards in court.
Note: While the vast majority of routine traffic stops are safe and involve moral police behavior, you cannot assume that officers will conduct themselves in a way that protects your safety and rights. Know your rights (see our separate post) and be prepared if the officer infringes upon those rights.
2. Let the officer do most of the talking
Just as being argumentative or hostile can create problems, so too can talking more than necessary. Many police officers are trained to act as though they might let you off with a warning by displaying a willingness to hear your side of the story. This is often a deceitful way of getting you to say something—such as an admission that you committed a violation or were not paying attention—that the officer can then use against you in court.
When the officer approaches your window, let the officer talk first. Respond when appropriate, and keep your answers brief and honest. Usually, the officer will first request your license, registration and proof of insurance. You must comply with this request, but wait for the officer to ask for these documents before handing them over. The officer may then ask you and the passengers basic questions to confirm the identity of each person in the car. Any questions after this initial dialogue will generally be an effort to make you incriminate yourself. A simple, “I don’t know” or “I understand” can sometimes get you through these questions. Again, the more you share, the more likely you are to admit guilt.
One important exception to this guidance: Let the officer know if you’re carrying a gun. Some states, known as “duty to inform” states, require concealed carry owners to inform officers when pulled over. Even if you don’t get pulled over in one of these states, strongly consider informing the officer that you’re carrying a gun as a courtesy to the officer, especially if it is visible or in the same location as your requested documentation (e.g., glove compartment). Familiarize yourself with the requirements in your state by referencing the gun laws by state.
3. Avoid sudden movements
As discussed earlier, the police officer will continuously evaluate whether you are a threat. If you need to reach for anything (such as your license, registration and proof of insurance), make the officer aware first and move deliberately. Otherwise, leave your hands on the steering wheel or where the officer can see them.
4. Understand traffic violation accusation
Police are required to have “reasonable suspicion” to pull you over, but this is a relatively low and subjective threshold. If the officer does not immediately tell you why he or she pulled you over, politely ask for the reason (without stirring an argument).
5. Consider strategies to get out of ticket
There’s no assured way to maneuver your way out of a ticket. You’ve probably heard of some of the common methods: balling your eyes out, begging for mercy, flirtatious behavior, etc. But before you jump to any of these cringeworthy tactics, consider the following options to potentially help you drive away with a warning:
i. Be polite and non-threatening
Again, be as courteous and friendly to the officer as possible.
ii. Reference your honorable profession
If you have a demanding occupation, especially one that provides value to the community (and in particular, the police), find a way to bring this up in the conversation with the officer. Police can be hesitant to fine those in similar positions or who directly benefit public service. Try mentioning that you were on your way to work, and then go from there.
Additional options if you DO NOT plan to formally fight the ticket in court:
iii. Act confused
Police may give you the benefit of the doubt if you are new to the area and unaware of the traffic laws. With this in mind, you can try acting as if you are from out of town and thus were not aware of the speed limit, stop sign, etc. (Note this will not work if you get pulled over near your home address). Bring on your best Oscar-winning performance: for example, act surprised when you hear how fast you were driving, and describe how you typically drive the same speed as your 90-year-old grandmother.
Sometimes, a direct admission and apology can work in your favor. This may work best with a very minor infraction, such as not using your turn signal or rolling through a stop sign. If you provide a sincere apology and share that you will be more careful next time, the cop might let you off with a warning.
v. Late for a lifechanging event
If you are truly desperate, you can claim that you are on your way to a monumental event, such as the birth of a child, an emergency surgery or a wedding. I personally don’t condone this option, but to each their own—just make sure you play out the scenario in full in case the officer follows (or gives you a police escort).
vi. Cry uncontrollably
Time for yet another Oscar-winning performance. If you’re sobbing and trembling hysterically like a two-year-old who just lost a blankie, sometimes an officer can’t help but pity you. Before you go down this path, consider whether self-respect is important to you.
6. DO NOT consent to a search of your car
On occasion, police may casually ask if they can take a look in your car. NEVER consent to this, no matter how innocent the request appears; nothing good can come from it. By law, the officer can only search your car in the following circumstances:
- If you provide consent (don’t do this)
- If you have something illegal in plain view (e.g., open beer or wine bottles, joints, dead Aunt Edna)
- If you have already been arrested
- If there is probable cause that a crime has been committed
- If evidence from a crime is at risk of immediately being destroyed
Outside of these scenarios, officers need a warrant to search your car. Politely decline, and say that you know you may do so under your Fourth Amendment right.
7. Sign the citation
Even if you believe you are innocent, sign the officer’s citation. The citation is not an admission of guilt—it’s only a recognition that you have received the citation and will pay the fine or appear in court on the designated date.
8. Safely merge back into traffic
This may sound obvious, but be careful when merging back into traffic. Don’t let your emotions get the best of you and inadvertently pull out into oncoming traffic. Take some deep breaths, put away your belongings, turn on your signal and safely merge back into traffic.
9. Consider fighting the ticket in court
Many people find it easier to just pay the ticket fine rather than fighting it in court, especially if it is only for a minor traffic violation. However, if the ticket would result in a suspension of your driver’s license or large hike in your insurance premiums, the effort can pay off. Or maybe you are determined to prove that you are innocent or the ticket is unjustified.
If you do plan to fight the ticket, make sure you are organized and prepared (or consider involving a lawyer). You can improve your chances of dismissal if you can identify any false information on the ticket or provide any other proof of your innocence. Or, who knows, maybe the officer won’t show and you can get the case dismissed immediately.
Know Your Rights
I’ll state the obvious here: Relations between the police and certain communities aren’t going so well right now. While most police officers are admirable, ethical and trustworthy individuals, there will always be some bad apples. In this regard, it’s important for you to know your rights and how to react when police infringe upon your rights. Refer to our separate post to be prepared in case you find yourself in this unfortunate situation.