We’ve all been in this position before – we’re driving along and see the red and blue flashing lights in our rearview mirror. You pull over to the side of the road and hope the officer will continue past you, but you see the vehicle pull in behind yours and you wonder: Why am I being stopped? What is going to happen next?
It can be very intimidating to see the officer walking up to your car. You know that your actions will have a significant impact on how this interaction will go, but what should you do? What can you do to protect yourself in the event things turn from a regular traffic stop into a more complex investigation?
The right to refuse a search
You have specific rights that protect you from harm and intimidation during a traffic stop. One of the most common things to happen during a traffic stop is that the officer will request permission to search your vehicle. They may not have any evidence that you committed a crime, but if you give them permission to search, anything they find can be used against you.
If the officer requests to search your vehicle for drugs or other suspected contraband, know that you have the right to refuse their request. Now, this isn’t going to end the interaction there, necessarily. Police will still have the option of deciding whether or not to pursue other avenues to get the ability to search your vehicle, but you do have the right to decline their request.
You must verbally refuse to consent to the search. Do not, under any circumstances, engage in any physical actions that attempt to prevent a search from taking place. Officers may interpret this as an act of aggression, resulting in potential harm or arrest to you or your passengers.
Keeping things under control
There are other things that you can do to try to keep the stop from becoming a bigger deal. When officers approach your vehicle, make sure to keep your hands on the steering wheel. Follow the instructions you are given, including presenting your license and registration when asked.
If police ask you detailed questions about your destination or what has happened prior to your stop, you do have the right to refuse to answer their questions. Know that officers are permitted to say things to you that are untrue when conducting an investigation, even during a traffic stop. They may try to get you to make a statement that puts you in a difficult position down the line, so remember that you have the right to invoke your right to remain silent without an attorney present.
Even if you do everything perfectly, officers may still decide to escalate the situation. If they decide to arrest you or take you in for additional questioning, you should have a lawyer present before you answer any of their questions.