Nobody likes to get pulled over, but if a police officer does stop you, you need to know how to talk to the officer. The main thing to remember is that a police officer approaching your car has no idea who you are and whether you pose a threat. The reality is that police officers are killed during routine traffic stops and, for this reasons, officers will always approach the situation as though you are dangerous. The following tips can help you talk to police, keep yourself safe, and maybe even prevent an arrest or a ticket.
For more information on traffic violations and related criminal offenses, see Traffic Violations & Driving Crimes.
For information on how to handle yourself if you are arrested, see What to Do and Not Do When Arrested.
Before the officer approaches, place the car in park, turn off the ignition, roll down your window, place your hands on the top of the steering wheel where they can be seen, and, at night, turn on the interior car light. Move slowly and do not make any furtive motions – cramming something under the seat can give the officer probable cause to search the car. Do not start digging through your glove box or pockets looking for your driver’s license or registration until the officer asks you to do so. The officer may think you are reaching for a weapon and act accordingly.
For more information, see Police Stops: What to Do If You Are Pulled Over.
You should always cooperate with any (lawful) request of the officer. Give the officer your name and address if asked. A police officer does not have to tell you why you were stopped, at least not initially. An officer can ask you to get out of the car, or stay in the car. You should do as asked, and remain cordial. This is definitely a situation in which it does not hurt to be polite.
Let the officer start talking. Usually, the officer will first request your driver’s license and registration. Do not act hostile or defensive. Do not insist that the officer tell you why you were stopped. Instead, just reply, “Sure” or “Of course,” and hand over the documents. If you have to reach into your glove compartment, purse, or pocket, you can tell the officer that you will need to do so, and wait for permission.
Many police officers are trained to act as though they might let you off with a warning, but only if you cooperate and answer their questions. The officer may be trying to appear open to hearing your version of events so that you will say something incriminating that the officer can use against you in court. Often, the officer will try to get you to admit that you committed a violation. For example, do not be tempted to apologize in the hopes of getting off with a warning. Saying something like, “Yes, officer, I know I was speeding, but I promise to be more careful next time,” is only an admission of guilt. Sometimes, officers will try to get you to admit that you were not paying attention and you do not know whether you committed a violation or not. Do not do so.
Do not lie to a police officer, but keep your answers to questions brief. The officer might ask, "Do you know why I stopped you?" If you answer at all, your answer should always be “No.” Similarly, if the officer asks, "Do you know how fast you were going?" the best answer is, “Yes.” The officer may then tell you how fast you were going, but do not argue. Your best strategy may be to engage in a bit of reflective listening, saying “Hmmm” and “I see” and “I understand,” without saying anything substantive. You can also choose not to answer the officer’s questions at all. Silence is not an admission of guilt and generally cannot be used against you in court.
The officer may ask to search your car. Never consent to a search. It is much harder to challenge any evidence that is found in your car if you consent to the search. And, if the officer has legitimate grounds to search your car, he or she is going to search the car whether you give permission or not. Many times, officers will ask for your consent to search your car when the officer knows that there are no legal grounds to support a search without your consent.
For more information on when an officer can search your car, see When Can the Police Search My Car?
If the officer asks you step out of the car, the officer can legally pat you down for weapons if there is any reason to believe you might be dangerous. If the officer finds anything during the pat down that feels like a weapon, he or she can take a further look.
Drinking and driving is never a good idea, but there is nothing to be gained by admitting that you have been drinking. In most states, drivers are free to refuse to perform field sobriety (such as walking in a straight line) and cannot be penalized for doing so, but refusing to perform such a test may make an investigating officer more suspicious and prolong a traffic stop. Also, in some states, the prosecutor may tell the judge or jury about a driver’s refusal to cooperate.
Breathalyzers and blood tests and other chemical tests are a different story. Drivers who refuse these tests will automatically have their driver's licenses suspended or revoked often for up to a year, courtesy of the state's “Implied Consent Law.” This law provides that, upon receiving a driver's license, every driver has automatically consented to take chemical tests when asked by an officer.
For more information, see Refusing to Perform a Field Sobriety Test and Refusing to Submit to a Breathalyzer or Blood Test.
What if you are armed?
In some states, if you have a gun in your car or on your person under a concealed carry license, you are required to notify an officer of the gun. In other states, you are not required to tell an officer, but you may decide to tell the officer about a weapon if, for example, it is in the glove compartment and you need to open the glove compartment. Familiarize yourself with the gun laws in your state and act accordingly. For state-by-state information on concealed weapons permits and laws, see Concealed Weapons Laws.
If you were ticketed or arrested, talk to a local attorney who handles traffic cases. An attorney can tell you what to expect in court and how to mount the strongest possible defense. If you have been careful during the traffic stop, you will probably be in a much better position to defend yourself in court.