How to Avoid Trouble During a Traffic Stop


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Millions of Americans fear what can happen during a traffic stop. The names “Ferguson” and “Rodney King” have taken on a significance in the national psyche that will not soon be shaken.

Still, while these and the dozens of other cases of over-reacting police officers can leave people in terror at what might await should they be stopped by the police, this fear is largely unwarranted. In reality, we live in the safest and most tolerant time in history. For the most part, the events that lead to these famous examples of police brutality were not entirely without provocation. Thus, knowing how to behave when confronted by police is critical.

Flashing Lights

Most people do not interact with the police except when being stopped for a traffic violation. Obviously, the best bet for avoiding any trouble with the authorities is to simply obey all of the traffic laws. But, virtually everyone slips eventually, and if the lapse is observed by law enforcement, a traffic stop may ensue.

From the moment you notice the flashing lights, it is time to carefully consider your behavior. If you are on a busy street with no convenient places to pull over, or if you are in a secluded area where you do not feel comfortable stopping, turn on your hazard lights, reduce your speed, and find someplace appropriate to pull over. Look for lighted, populated areas, such as a gas station or store parking lot. While you may feel embarrassed about being pulled over, a little public scrutiny will help to keep the matter from escalating inappropriately.

As the officer approaches, keep your hands on the wheel where they are visible as the officer approaches. Move slowly and deliberately when asked to do things like present a license or registration. Be polite to the officer, possibly even acting a bit sheepish about being stopped. Do not argue with the officer or become confrontational. Do not refuse any reasonable requests, such as stepping out of the vehicle or presenting your license, registration, or proof of insurance.

Avoiding Abuses

With most officers, this behavior should be sufficient to demonstrate that you are attempting to comply and act in a reasonable manner. Unfortunately, there are occasions when officers act inappropriately without provocation. Sadly, there have been stories of officers forcing women to engage in sexual favors, improperly searching vehicles without cause or warrant, or becoming verbally abusive without provocation.

Pulling into an area where the officer's behaviors can be observed will help to prevent many of these abuses. But, should they occur anyway, there are several options now available to you. First, there are now many dashboard camera devices available consumers. These are similar to the cameras used on police vehicles and can be used in much the same way. Such a device could record your entire encounter with a police officer in a subtle manner not likely to be immediately noticed or lead to confrontation.

If asked to do or allow something which you believe is unreasonable, you can say “no.” Many officers are trained to push people to allow them to do searches even under circumstances when they would not otherwise be permitted to do so. Nevertheless, they also know that they have to get your permission in order to use any evidence obtained in that manner. So, unless you are being ordered to allow a search, you can simply say “no.” Of course, you should do so politely and be very clear that the officer is asking, not ordering. If the officer has ordered you to allow a search, you cannot decline and need to cooperate.

If the officer makes patently inappropriate requests or orders, it is important to act appropriately. Clarify that you do not misunderstand what the officer is commanding. Explain that you feel the command is inappropriate and ask the officer for his badge number and the name of his commanding officer. Remain polite and avoid directly challenging the officer verbally or physically. If in a public place, try to get attention from others in the area, possibly even asking one of them to contact the police about what is happening. There have been instances of people impersonating police officers, and doing so may reveal such a fraud. At the very least, it will draw attention to what is going on, likely making an officer think twice about abusing his power.

The Aftermath

If you are ticketed or arrested by an officer under circumstances that you believe are inappropriate, it is time to hire a lawyer. Find one that specializes in criminal law and who has experience dealing with illegal stops, searches, and seizures. If your encounter has resulted in other harm, such as a sexual assault or battery, you should contact your state's Attorney General as well as a private attorney who specializes in personal injury law and/or civil rights violations. Upon the advice of your attorney, it may also be wise to contact the news media to share the story of what has happened to you. Even if there is insufficient evidence to lead to a suspension of the officer in question, a conviction for criminal offenses, or a judgment for the harm you have suffered, the media attention can shine a light on the occurrence that can be far more powerful and bring swifter results.

Whatever you do, be sure to protect your rights. Failing to do so can result in further injury, not just to you, but to other innocent parties, as well. An attorney will be able to help you determine the appropriate course of action, but it may still require a lot of work on your part. Be strong, and do not shy away from this effort or the injustices may continue.

For a list of attorneys in your area that can help you if facing these types of issues, as well as additional information about civil rights violations, traffic stops, and other types of civil and criminal offenses and defenses, please visit HG.org.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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