With the increasingly widespread availability and ownership of personal recording devices such as dash cams, there seems to be a corresponding increase in reports of police misconduct, profiling, and even outright violence occurring during what seem to be routine traffic stops. We’ve written before about how technology can help get the facts straight in a case, and our work with police officers in the past has helped us gain a deep appreciation for the work that they do every day to keep us safe.
Of course, we also believe it’s important for everyone to be educated about their rights, particularly since it seems that many recent confrontations between police and citizens during traffic stops could have been avoided if all involved parties were aware of their IV Amendment rights and put them to good use. To that end, we’ve created this post to help you understand your rights if and when you are pulled over by a police officer. Keep in mind that laws do vary state by state, at checkpoints, and upon entrance to the United States, so you should always make sure you are within your rights before attempting to exercise them.
What is the Fourth Amendment?
While rarely invoked before the turn of the 20th century, the Fourth Amendment is now one of the most heavily debated and oft-cited Constitutional Amendments. In general terms, it protects against unlawful search and seizure and requires that warrants be supported by probable cause. The Fourth Amendment applies to everyone, even those with undocumented immigration or citizenship status.
In regards to automobiles, police officers must still adhere to probable cause, but the Supreme Court has ruled that motorists’ expectation of privacy is less when they are in their vehicles compared to if they are in their place of residence. An extension of that ruling is that drivers and passengers can be personally searched if they provide consent. While we do have the right to refuse a search, officers may still conduct one if they determine there is probable cause to do so.
Courts generally do not allow evidence to be admitted that is discovered while the officer(s) are in violation of the Fourth Amendment. This is commonly known as the exclusionary rule and helps deter law enforcement officers from infringing on citizens’ rights.
Be Polite, Yet Reserved
When pulled over during a traffic stop, you do have the right to remain silent, if you wish. You simply need to identify yourself and follow the attending officer’s instructions. Bear in mind, however, that depending on the circumstances, your silence could be construed as suspicious in and of itself, which often leads to an unnecessary escalation of the situation. For instance, your refusal to answer simple, direct questions could lead the officer to believe that you are driving under the influence, resulting in further questioning and perhaps a field sobriety test.
One expert recommends providing polite, tactful responses to an officer’s questions. Jim Baxter, president of the National Motorists Association, states, “You don’t have to answer any questions, but some comment, such as, ‘Officer I don’t wish to discuss the matter’ would be prudent, just to make it clear that you have heard him and acknowledge his presence.” Again, while you are within your rights to adopt this approach, your silence or curt responses could raise the officer’s suspicion, leading to a personal search or even arrest in certain states where traffic offenses are subject to arrest.
Should you choose to engage law enforcement vocally during a traffic stop, remain calm and respectful, and do not raise your voice. Just as they have the right to view your license, insurance, and registration documents, you too have the right to know the names and badge numbers of any attending officers. When asked politely, law enforcement officers are usually happy to oblige without aggression or heightened suspicion. However, police officers have become increasingly wary of potentially violent, dangerous situations and will likely not respond well to aggression. Do not attempt to interfere with their investigation, and do not lie or give false statements, as these things could cause further complications for you later down the line.
It is also within your rights to ask the attending officer if you are being placed under arrest. If they state that you are not, you have the right to leave in a calm, respectful manner. If you are under arrest, do not attempt to resist, and do your best to remember all of the details of the incident. If you feel that your rights have been violated in any way, you may file a complaint with your local police station or the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
As we are all well aware, there have been several horrific, violent instances that have occurred recently between citizens and police, some of which have stemmed from seemingly routine traffic stops. In order to avoid this sort of result, we strongly urge everyone to remain calm during traffic stops and never engage the attending officer(s) physically. There is no need to run from, resist the arrest of, or obstruct the investigation of an officer. Doing so will quickly escalate the situation and could potentially result in serious injuries or criminal charges.
Ultimately, your best course of action when you are pulled over is to turn off your vehicle’s ignition, remain seated with your seatbelt on, and place both of your hands where the officer will be able to see them. (The steering wheel is usually the best spot.) When the officer approaches, ask for his identification from inside the vehicle before unrolling your window. This will ensure your safety in the incredibly rare event that the individual who pulled you over is not actually a police officer.
Even if, and perhaps especially if, you feel that you are being treated unfairly or are being arrested without cause, do not resist arrest. The instant you become aggressive or violent, the situation changes drastically from one in which you are a law-abiding citizen on the wrong end of an unjustified arrest to on in which you are perceived as a criminal with no regard for police officers. This may or may not be true, but regardless of the circumstances, judges don’t often look kindly on individuals who resist arrest. Trust in your innocence and due process, and things should resolve themselves accordingly.
If you are placed under arrest, you are under no obligation to speak a single word without your attorney present. You don’t have to explain your reasons for seeking legal assistance, and the fact that you requested a lawyer will have no impact on the course of potential legal proceedings. It is a right afforded you by the Constitution of the United States, and there is nothing suspicious or incriminating about invoking your rights.
If you are unable to afford an attorney of your choosing, you are allowed free counsel via public defender. This may mean your waiting time to speak with counsel will be slightly longer, but you have the right to remain silent throughout the waiting period. After you are arrested, you also have the right to make a local phone call that the authorities are prohibited from listening to.
If you are living in this country without proper documentation, do not discuss that fact without anyone but your lawyer—including immigration agents. If you do not understand or speak English fluently, request an interpreter and remain silent until they are made available. Also, as someone technically living in this country illegally, the government is not obligated to provide you with a public defender. However, you may ask for contact information for affordable counsel. Most importantly, do not sign anything without first speaking with your attorney. Doing so could result in deportation from this country.
We are all privileged to live in such a wonderful country where our rights are guaranteed by the Constitution and one in which we have brave men and women serving as law enforcement officials and placing themselves in harm’s way every day to protect those rights. Our sincere hope is that motorists will respect all law enforcement officers and the great responsibility they are tasked with to keep our citizens safe each and every day. Likewise, we all hope that these officers will respect the IV Amendment and citizens’ rights to be protected from unlawful search and seizure without probable cause.
ACLU. (2015). What to do if you’re stopped by the police, immigration agents or the FBI. Retrieved from https://www.aclu.org/know-your-rights/what-do-if-youre-stopped-police-immigration-agents-or-fbi
Fantz, A. (2015, July 23). What are your rights during a traffic stop – and is it wise to exercise them? CNN. Retrieved from www.cnn.com/2015/07/23/us/sandra-bland-traffic-stop-rights
Phillips, J. (2008, July). Is silence really golden during a traffic stop? Car And Driver. Retrieved from http://www.caranddriver.com/columns/is-silence-really-golden-during-a-traffic-stop
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