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What Should You Do at a Traffic Stop by Police?

Arizona State Trooper - Traffic Stop

When You See the Flashing Lights of a Police Vehicle

No matter how good driver you are, sooner or later you will make a mistake. Maybe even break the law. If observed by a police officer, chances are that the officer will pull you over.

Even if the law is complicated, most states give police officers a lot of discretion for when and who they decide to pull over. So, when you see the flashing lights of a police vehicle in your rear-view mirror, there are some things you should know and some simple steps to follow.

Start by Slowing Down and Acknowledging the Officer

Not everyone is a law-abiding citizen and officers are often reminded of the dangers of a seemingly routine traffic stop. With this in mind, you should keep calm and do everything you can to make a stressful situation less tensed.

As soon as you see the police vehicle behind you, acknowledge its presence and your intent to pull over by slowing down and activating your turn signal. Under normal circumstances, an officer will not signal you to stop unless you are in a safe place to move over.

But what if there’s no good or safe place to pull over? Turn on your flashers and slow down to a slow crawl to signal to the officer that you understand your responsibility to pull over. The officer will usually guide with his patrol car or use his loudspeaker.

If you don’t show that you recognize the officer’s presence or fail to slow down, you may alarm the officer and he may think you have reason to avoid stopping.

Traffic Stop - NHTSA Image Library

Where to Pull Over

When safe, move your vehicle to the right shoulder or as close as possible to the right curb. Never stop in the center median of a freeway or on the opposite side of a two-lane roadway, this can place both you and the officer in danger of being hit by oncoming traffic.

On a freeway, move completely onto the right shoulder, even if you are in the carpool lane.

When it is dark, you may want to stop in locations that have more light such as areas with street or freeway lights, near restaurants or service stations.

Don’t be alarmed if the officer, despite of a well-lit area, directs a spotlight at your vehicle once you have stopped. To help with visibility, turn on your interior lights as soon as you stop to help the officer see inside your vehicle.

If your emergency flashers aren’t turned on yet, this is a good time to do so.

If you were in the middle of a phone conversation or listening to music, turn off your phone and music player. The officer needs your full attention when communicating.

Should your vehicle have tinted windows, you should roll down your windows after you have stopped and before the officer contacts you.

If you are smoking, put out your cigarette.

Traffic Stop - Photo courtesy NHTSA

Once You Have Stopped

Remain inside your vehicle at all times, unless otherwise directed by the officer. During a traffic stop, officers are trained to place a great deal of emphasis on their safety, but also on your safety and the safety of your passengers. In most situations, the safest place for you and your passengers is inside your vehicle.

Exiting your vehicle without first being directed by an officer increase the risk of being struck by a passing vehicle and/or increase the officer’s level of feeling threatened.

Place your hands in clear view, preferably on the steering wheel. Passengers should also keep their hands where an officer can see them. Front seat passengers may keep their hands on their lap. Back seat passengers can rest their hands on the seat in front of them.

During the traffic stop, the officer’s inability to see the hands of the driver and all occupants in the vehicle increases the officer’s level of feeling threatened. Most violent criminal acts against a law enforcement officer occur when a person has a firearm or sharp object in their hands.

Keep still as the officer approaches. Don’t start looking for your license, insurance card, or other paperwork.

Keep your safety belt fastened.

When the Officer Has Approached You

The officer will normally approach you on the driver side but may also appear on the other side of your vehicle. When the officer can see your hands, roll down the window, if you haven’t already done so.

The officer will introduce himself and explain why he decided to pull you over.

He or she will then ask you for your driver’s license, vehicle registration and insurance card.

Explain where your paperwork is before reaching for it. Remove safety belt, if necessary. Make sure the officer can see your hands.

The officer will check your ID and all necessary papers. He or she may also ask you questions about your person and about the vehicle. Remember, when answering questions, you don’t have to incriminate yourself.

Traffic Stop - NHTSA

When the Officer Starts Asking Questions

If the officer starts by asking if you understand why he stopped you, you don’t have to answer. Same thing applies if the officer asks if you have been drinking.

But just because you have the right to refuse to answer, it doesn’t mean you should always exercise that right. The officer can appreciate precise and honest answers. Just make sure you don’t lie.

In some cases, when the officer reasonably believes you have committed a crime, he or she may also ask you to open the trunk. If you believe it is an illegal search, you can refuse, but do it politely, not aggressively.

When you answer questions, always answer politely and to best of your knowledge. Treat the officer with respect. After all, he or she is just doing a job. Don’t make it personal.

If the officer asks you about weapons, always answer truthfully. It is one of these questions you must answer at a traffic stop.

The officer can also order you to step out of your vehicle. If it is an order, you can’t refuse.

At this point, the officer may believe he has reasonable grounds for a search and/or an arrest. When this investigation starts, you should be careful when you answer any questions. Most traffic stops, however, never go this far.

Being arrested - Photo copyright:  Rommel Canlas

Impaired Driving

Should the officer believe you have been driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, the officer will normally arrest before asking you to take a test. When the state issued your driver license, you gave consent to such tests, known as implied consent. If you refuse the tests, you will lose your driving privilege. The officer will take you to a police station and you cannot continue driving.

This is known as an administrative penalty. This penalty is in addition to any penalties the court gives you at a later point. The exact rules for these penalties differ between states.

If you are under 21 years and have been drinking, even a small amount of alcohol put you at risk. This is because of the Zero Tolerance Law in your state.

If You Get a Ticket

If the officer decides to give you a citation, don’t argue with the officer. Swallow your pride, even if you think the officer is wrong.

I once was stopped for running a stop sign. I could have sworn there wasn’t one. But I kept quiet and did everything by the book. Afterwards, I went back the same way, and sure enough, the officer was right. I missed a stop sign. That time, I got away with a warning. Being politely and even friendly, can take you a long way sometimes.

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