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Know Your Rights: 5 Key Things to Do When You Are Pulled Over by a Police Officer

Most of us have been pulled over by a police officer and would characterize the experience as uncomfortable at best. Whether the traffic stop results in a run-of-the-mill traffic ticket or in a more serious charge such as possession of drugs or illegal weapons, failing to properly preserve your rights during an initial police stop can eliminate possible defenses before you ever enter a courtroom. Therefore, it is critical to know your basic constitutional rights and how to assert them any time you are stopped by police.

Here are five basic tips to protect your constitutional rights during a police stop:

Stay Calm, Be Respectful: Police stops can be tenuous and stressful not only for those who are stopped by the police, but also for law enforcement officers. Therefore, it is critical that while you assert your rights, you do so in a manner that is non-threatening and respectful. However difficult the interaction, control your words, body language and emotions. Keep your hands where an officer can see them, typically on the steering wheel, and do not make any physically aggressive moves towards the officer. Do not argue with the police, and do not obstruct an officer from carrying out his or her duty. Do not resist arrest, and do not run; even if you have defenses to charges relating to the initial stop, you will still have to face serious charges for resisting arrest or evading arrest. The goal is to keep the incident from escalating while remaining alert—memorize the officers badge number and try to remember as many details as possible.

Ask if You’re Free to Leave: If you have been pulled over and the officer starts questioning you beyond the basic questions—license, insurance, etc., ask the officer if you are free to leave. This question is critical because it may indicate whether you are under arrest and, therefore, should be read your Miranda rights. In Miranda v. Arizona the U.S. Supreme Court established that if a person is in custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom, he must be advised of his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, by being warned that (1) he has the right to remain silent; (2) anything he says can be used against him in a court of law; (3) he has the right to have an attorney present; and (4) if he cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for him. If an officer fails to advise you of your rights after you are under arrest, any statements you make after your arrest may not be used against you.

Asking the “free to leave” question also identifies the point at which an officer should have probable cause to not merely detain you, but arrest you.Probable cause exists when the facts and circumstances within an officers knowledge, and of which he has reasonably trustworthy information, are sufficient in themselves to warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief that an offense had been committed. If the officer doesn’t have probable cause to believe you committed a crime, then you should be free to leave.

Never Consent to a Search: You do not have to consent to a search of yourself or your belongings during a police stop. I cannot tell you how many times I have had clients waive their defenses by consenting to a search of their vehicle or person. The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution provides, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” Officers are typically allowed to ask you to step out of your vehicle to conduct a “pat down”; that is, to feel the outer part of your garments to ensure you do not have a weapon. However, if the officer reaches into any inner parts of your pockets or clothing, or even gropes an item to try to determine its contents, that constitutes a search for which there must be probable cause. The right to be protected from unlawful searches and seizures unsupported by probable cause extends to your vehicle. In order to search your vehicle or person, police must have probable cause. If you consent to a search, then police officers can proceed to conduct the search without probable cause. Once you consent, you waive any challenges to the legality of the search.

Remain Silent: As stated in tip number two above, you have a right to remain silent that stems from your Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. There is hardly any scenario where admitting to an officer during a police stop that you have illegal drugs in your car; that you are intoxicated; or that you have any evidence or information about a crime, will help your case once charges were filed. So exercise your right to remain silent by stating, “I’m exercising my right to remain silent,” and say no more. It is better to make a confession once you have the advice of counsel rather than on your own. After evaluating the evidence in your case, your attorney will know if there is a basis to challenge the charges against you on constitutional grounds or if you should make a statement as part of a plea deal.

Ask for Your Attorney: Once you exercise your right to remain silent, immediately ask for an attorney. There are some ways to waive your right to remain silent, but once you invoke your right to an attorney, police officers have to cease any questioning pertaining to any alleged crime or potential charges. Accordingly, if you are told that you are not free to leave or that you are under arrest, request an attorney immediately.

This list of tips does not contemplate every police stop scenario, but if you follow this basic advice next time you are pulled over by a police officer, it will go a long way in preserving your constitutional rights.

Author Biography:

Stacy M. Allen has served as counsel on an array of legal matters including civil and criminal law, family law, bankruptcy, and even terrorism cases. Stacy is a proud graduate of St. Edward’s University where she graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Relations with a concentration in Latin America, and of Howard University School of Law, in Washington, DC, where she served as President of the Huver I. Brown Trial Advocacy Moot Court Team. Her current practice focuses on a variety of civil litigation and criminal law matters.

Stacy M. Allen, Attorney at Law (@SMAllen_Esq)

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