Your Rights During a Traffic Stop

It is commonly accepted that the vast majority of drivers will, at one point in their driving careers, be pulled over for any number of possible reasons by law enforcement.  Typically speaking, these traffic stops result in routine fines for minor offenses concerning driving offenses that are non-criminal in nature, or simple citationable moving violations.  However, sometimes drivers find themselves in much more serious trouble with law enforcement following a routine traffic stop due to other punishable offenses within the vehicle itself, or due to outstanding criminal warrants or other holds.  Many drivers are unaware or unsure at best of their legal rights prior, during, and following a traffic stop with law enforcement.  Though each state and municipality engenders unique laws, statutes, policies, and procedures regarding motorists being pulled over, there are certain motorist rights that are preserved at the federal level, or across the entire United States, due to the United States Constitution

What to Do If You Are Pulled Over

Generally speaking, drivers should take careful stock of what or what not they are possibly being pulled over for, and if there is anything illegal within the confines of their person, passengers’ possession, or within the vehicle.  First and foremost, drivers facing a traffic stop are always advised to pull over immediately to the nearest safe location, generally on the right hand side of the roadway.  Trying to outrun police or maneuver away from their attempts to stop your vehicle creates much larger criminal issues than a simple traffic stop would.  Law enforcement is limited in their ability to search private vehicles due to a number of Constitutional Rights, most notably the set of procedures known as the “Plain View Doctrine”.  The “Plain View Doctrine” prohibits law enforcement officers from investigating inside a vehicle, or anything else outside of plain view without a warrant.  For drivers, this would include any items inside a glove compartment, the trunk, or even concealed under a seat.  Without the driver’s consent to search the vehicle, an officer must have a warrant with probable cause to look further inside your personal vehicle.  For this reason, drivers generally should decline an officer’s request to search their vehicle. 

Additionally, law enforcement may request drivers and passengers answer questions during a traffic stop.  These questions do not need to be answered, and in many instances, only license, registration, and insurance information are the only pieces of information an officer is required to be given by drivers.  Refusal to answer questions, although perhaps frustrating to law enforcement, is a right of drivers, so long as their refusal is not misconstrued as resisting arrest.  Likewise, drivers do not need to give officers consent to search their vehicles either.

Problems with Exercising Driving Rights

While under normal circumstances, most drivers are fully allowed to exercise their civil rights during a traffic stop, including refusal to answer questions, allow a search of the vehicle, or offer any other potentially incriminating evidence, many states take a completely different stance from an administrative standpoint.  Though no criminal action may be taken against drivers refusing to offer law enforcement anything that may be used to incriminate, there are administrative penalties that may be weighed against drivers that are allegedly failing to cooperate with a law enforcement officer.  The most notable example of this is when a driver refuses to submit to breathalyzer or other sobriety tests from a law enforcement officer.  Though the refusal itself is not a crime, the state itself can utilize this refusal to submit as grounds for levying penalties from an administrative angle, including suspending licenses for a period of time.