Your Rights During a Traffic Stop

♫So I pull over to the side of the road and I heard

“Son do you know why I’m stopping you for?”

Cause I’m young and I’m black and my hat’s real low

Do I look like a mind reader, sir? I don’t know

Am I under arrest or should I guess some more?

“Well you was doing fifty-five in a fifty-four

License and registration and step out of the car

Are you carrying a weapon on you?  I know a lot of you are”

I ain’t stepping out of s***, all my papers legit

“Well do you mind if I look around the car a little bit?”

Well my glove compartment is locked, so is the trunk in the back

And I know my rights, so you gon’ need a warrant for that

“Aren’t you sharp as a tack

You some type of lawyer or something

Or somebody important or something?”

Nah, I ain’t passed the bar but I know a little bit

Enough that you won’t illegally search my s***.

“Well we’ll see how smart you are when the K-9s come.” ♫

 

Jay-Z released “99 Problems” in 2003 and it included this verse about criminal procedure and your rights during a traffic stop.  Unfortunately, not all of it is accurate.  So, with the increased national focus on traffic stops and citizens’ rights when dealing with the police after the incidents in Ferguson, New York, Texas, and even here in Moore, Oklahoma let’s take a closer look at “99 Problems” and citizens’ rights during a traffic stop.  The questions we will answer are: what are your rights during a traffic stop?  Can an officer search your vehicle during a traffic stop?  And, what about the use of K-9s?

1. YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO REMAIN SILENT

First, and foremost, if you have been stopped by the police you have the right to remain silent.  You do not have to answer a police officer’s questions and your silence cannot be used against you.  If you are going to invoke your right to remain silent, you must do so verbally and you must make it clear to the officer that you are doing so.  For example, say “I refuse to answer any questions” or “I want to speak to my attorney” or “I wish to remain silent.”   However, like all rights, the right to remain silent is not absolute.  If you have been pulled over and a police officer asks for your identification, you do have to provide it to him, along with your insurance verification.  Also, there is an exception to the right to silence in many states, if a police officer asks you for your name, address, and date of birth, you are required to provide that information.

2. YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO REFUSE TO CONSENT TO A SEARCH OF YOUR VEHICLE

Second, you have the right to refuse to consent to a search of your vehicle.  “Well do you mind if I look around the car a little bit?  Well my glove compartment is locked, so is the trunk in the back and I know my rights so you gon’ need a warrant for that.”  Do not be fooled by the casualness of the question “do you mind if I look around the car a little bit?”.  This is a request to search the vehicle.  And, you are fully within your rights to refuse this request.  However, the police officer does not need a warrant to search the vehicle if you refuse to give consent.  There are several situations where police officers may conduct a search of your vehicle without a warrant, even if you do not give consent., including if the officer has probable cause to believe the vehicle contains contraband or evidence of a crime or your vehicle may be searched if you are arrested, and the officer may seize any illegal objects in your vehicle that are in “plain view.”  The most important of these exceptions is probable cause.  The United States Supreme Court has found that it is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment for the police to search a vehicle (this includes the entire vehicle, locked glove boxes, locked trunks, and everything inside the car, including any containers) without a warrant whenever they have probable cause to believe the car contains evidence of a crime, because of the inherently mobile nature of vehicles.  So, even if your glove compartment and trunk are locked, they may be searched, if the police officer has probable cause to search the vehicle.

However, even if you exercise your right to refuse to consent to a search of your vehicle and if none of the exceptions discussed above exist, the police officer may have a drug dog sniff the vehicle, because this is not a “search” under the Fourth Amendment.  The United States Supreme Court has held that dog sniffs do not reveal any information about the contents or the object sniffed except the presence of contraband, of which you do not have any right to privacy.  Thus, and this is the key, as long as the traffic stop is not prolonged to allow time for the K-9 unit to get there, the police may have a drug dog sniff your vehicle when they pull you over for a traffic violation and you have no right to object to the sniff.

3. YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO LEAVE

Third, if you are not under arrest, you have the right to leave.  In a traffic stop, once the officer has processed the ticket or warning for the traffic violation that you were pulled over for, unless you have been arrested, you are free to leave in a calm and peaceful manner.  Just keep in mind, you may be arrested for a simple traffic violation.  Every crime (including a traffic offense) is an arrestable offense.

4. YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO AN ATTORNEY

Fourth, if you are arrested, you have the right to an attorney.  If you are arrested, do not answer any further questions and immediately ask for an attorney.  You have the right to talk to an attorney and to have your attorney with you while you are being questioned by the police.  You may even exercise your right to an attorney after you have begun talking to the police and once you request an attorney all questions should immediately stop.  Even if you cannot afford an attorney, for most criminal charges, one will be appointed to you by the Court.

The bottom line during a traffic stop is:

  1. You have the right to remain silent;
  2. You have the right to refuse to consent to a search of your vehicle;
  3. You have the right to leave, if you have not been arrested; and,
  4. If you have been arrested, you have the right to an attorney.

However, keep in mind, the best thing to do during a traffic stop is to be polite, respectful, and to cooperate with the police officer.  Do whatever you can to set their mind at ease by showing them some basic courtesies:

  1. Roll your window down all the way;
  2. Stay in your vehicle;
  3. Keep your hands on the steering wheel; and,
  4. If it is at night, turn on your interior light.

Police officers are killed every day during “ordinary” traffic-stops and doing these things will help to alleviate any fears and concerns they may have as they approach your vehicle.  If they request your driver’s license and insurance information, provide it to them.  Do not argue with the officer about the reason for your stop.  This is not the time or place to try and prove your innocence-that is in court, with your attorney.  You are not going to convince the officer that he should not have stopped you and, more likely than not, you will just talk yourself into a ticket.  And, most important, if you are arrested do not resist or fight.  Even if you believe the arrest is illegal, you do not have the right to resist, cooperate, request an attorney and allow your attorney to fight the arrest in court.  If you argue with the police, are disrespectful, or resist the arrest you will have “99 problems.”

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