What to Do if You’re Stopped by the Police
Getting stopped by police is never a pleasant experience. How you conduct yourself will have a significant impact on the outcome. When stopped by police you should:
- Stay calm.
- Be polite to the officer.
- Turn on the interior lights.
- Open the window part way.
- Place your hands on the steering wheel.
- Provide license, registration and proof of insurance if asked.
- Avoid making sudden movements.
It is up to the officer to de-escalate the situation. But by following these simple instructions, you may keep the situation from turning from bad to worse.
How long can an officer keep you at a traffic stop?
The stop and inquiry must last no longer than is necessary to deal with the reason for the stop. This is known as the principle of proportionality. If the stop was for a minor motor vehicle violation the officer will check the validity of your license, registration and insurance. If there are no issues, he or she should write you a ticket and release you. If the stop was for more serious reasons such as your car matched the description of a car involved in a crime, the officer is allowed to conduct a threshold investigation. That means that he or she can hold you longer and ask more questions.
In certain circumstances, an officer is allowed to make a threshold inquiry. A threshold inquiry is the warrantless stopping, questioning and frisking of suspicious persons.
It’s a basic police duty to check on suspicious persons or circumstances, particularly in the nighttime and in high-crime areas. This means that an officer can temporarily detain you to determine if criminal activity is afoot. He or she may do so even if there is not enough probable cause for arrest.
The right to remain silent.
You have the right to remain silent thanks to the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That right applies to traffic stops. You do not have to answer any questions. You do not have to say where you were coming from and going to. You do not have to answer questions about drinking alcohol. You are not required to explain why you are in the area. If you do not want to answer questions, say so out loud. Make sure anyone nearby can hear you refusing to answer.
One common question asked is, “[D]o you know why I pulled you over?” Definitely don’t answer that question. By answering, you may be admitting to a traffic violation or even a crime. Let the officer tell you the reason for the stop.
Do you have to show ID to police?
In Massachusetts, if you are the operator of a motor vehicle you must present your license to law enforcement. A more interesting question is, does a passenger have to show ID. Generally, no. A passenger doesn’t have to show identification. Further, if the stop was for a motor vehicle violation, a passenger can simply walk away. If you’re the passenger ask the officers, “[A]m I being detained?” If they say no, you can go. If they say yes, then you have been “seized”. Any conversation with you from that point could be inadmissible unless they advise you of your Miranda rights. They must have probable cause at that moment to detain you. If they can’t show probable cause in court, any statements and evidence obtained may be thrown out.
Can the police order you out of a vehicle?
A so-called “exit order” is justified for three reasons:
- Officer safety;
- Suspected criminal activity; and,
- A search of the car.
Let’s look at each one of these reasons individually.
- Officer Safety
In a routine traffic stop, officers may not order you out of the car unless they have a reasonable apprehension of danger. There are many factors a court will look to when deciding if an officer was reasonably in fear for his or her safety such as:
- If the stop was in a high-crime area;
- If the officer is outnumbered;
- If the occupants of the car are moving around; and
- If the occupants are acting nervously.
No one single factor will be sufficient to support an exit order. The court will look at all the circumstances. Merely being nervous is not enough. But courts are inclined to allow them in order to protect police officers.
- Suspected criminal activity
Things are much different if police suspect that a crime is being committed. That’s true whether the original stop was based on suspected criminal activity as well as if during the stop the police come to that conclusion. The nature of the stop can easily turn from routine to non-routine in a hurry.
In such a case, the police must have a reasonable suspicion based on “specific and articulable” facts and reasonable inferences that a crime has been committed, is being committed, or is about to be committed. A mere hunch is not enough. The thinking behind this is that ordering you out of the car will prevent you from fleeing the scene before the officer can investigate the suspected crime.
What are specific and articulable facts that will allow police to order you out of your car? There is no set list. Courts decide this on a case-by-case basis. Some of the most common examples are:
- Furtive movements,
o Moving around inside car, possibly hiding or reaching for something,
- Being close to the scene of a recent crime,
- Fitting the description of a suspect, and
- Suspicious items in plain view.
- A search of the car
Officers can order you out of the car if they have grounds to search the car. For instance, if the owner or driver of the car gives permission for the police to search, which you should never do. Or it may be that the registration has expired and the car will be towed.
Can police legitimately search my car without a warrant?
Police generally need a warrant to search your property. There are many exceptions to this rule, however. One of which is a search of a motor vehicle. Because a car is mobile by nature, the courts have allowed greater latitude to search it.
The police must have probable cause to believe criminal activity is being conducted in order to search your car without your permission. This is a higher standard than the reasonable suspicion standard which is required for an exit order. Probable cause exists when facts and circumstances within the police officer’s knowledge would lead a reasonable person to believe that the suspect has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime. Probable cause must come from specific facts and circumstances, rather than simply from the officer’s hunch or suspicion.
Being pulled over by the police is stressful. It’s stressful for you, as well as the police officers. Be polite. Keep your hands where they can see them. Don’t make any sudden movements. If you’re the driver, you must give them your license, registration and proof of insurance. If you’re a passenger, you do not need to show your ID unless the officers have probable cause. You don’t need to make any statements, and you shouldn’t. Tell the officers, “I don’t make statements.” If you were stopped for a motor vehicle violation, you must be released after you’ve taken care of that issue. Finally, don’t give permission to search your car.