You’re driving along the road, minding your own business, just trying to get to work, grab some food or catch some live music. Suddenly, you see flashing lights in your rearview mirror.
Even if you don’t end up getting a ticket, being pulled over is nerve-wracking. You have to talk with an authoritative, serious-faced stranger who already thinks you’ve done something wrong. At the very least, you’re probably facing a time delay, some nervousness and a demand that you produce your driver’s license and insurance information.
Being pulled over is a common experience. But highly publicized cases of deadly encounters between police and motorists, such as the recently tried Philando Castile case, have inspired some communities to add a new component to their driver’s education curriculum: what drivers should do when they’re pulled over. Police departments across the U.S. are working to change their practices at varying speeds, but it’s important that individuals understand their rights.
Teresa Nelson, legal director and interim executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, shared the organization’s best practices for what to do when pulled over and broke down the rights we have in a traffic stop scenario. The ACLU is a national non-partisan organization that works to protect the rights of individuals.
Here’s a few main points from our conversation:
When a police officer pulls you over, they might ask to search your vehicle. As soon as you consent to a search , you’re waiving your Fourth Amendment rights, which protect you against unreasonable searches and seizures.
“Even if you think… ‘I have nothing to hide,’ ” you should refuse a search, Nelson said. You might have something in your car that you aren’t aware of, like drugs that fell out of a friend’s purse or pocket while you were giving them a ride.
Officers might still perform a search without your consent, but they will have to justify the reasons for the search when they write up their police reports, Nelson said.
If police tell you to get out of your car, for instance, and you refuse to get up, that’s resisting an officer, said Nelson. Instead, calmly and quietly follow the officer’s instructions.
And remember this: “Police are allowed to lie (to you)… but it’s a crime if you lie to them,” Nelson said. “Never lie to a police officer.”
Sometimes officers will perform pretextual stops. That’s when they stop you for a minor equipment violation, such as a bum brake light, because they want to investigate you for a criminal violation, according to Nelson.
You have the right to remain silent, but consider whether that’s your best option. Sometimes exercising this right makes officers suspicious, which can make the situation worse, Nelson said.
If you don’t want to answer a question directly or remain silent, answer their question with a question. Here’s an example:
Officer: What brings you to this area?
You: Is there a problem?
Am I free to leave?
Did I do something wrong?
If the officer says you’re free to leave, you should do so calmly and quietly. If you’re not free to leave, you should tell the officer “I don’t want to talk to you without an attorney present,” Nelson said.
If you’re pulled over and the interaction starts to get heated, remember these tips:
Citizens can do everything right and are sometimes still the victims of excessive police force. Still, Nelson wants to make certain people are informed of their rights and their options.
“Giving people information about what police perceive as threats is useful,” she said.
ACLU Minnesota provides “Know Your Rights” training, as do other affiliates across the country. Check with your local ACLU affiliate to see if it offers similar training.
The ACLU also provides free, printable “Know Your Rights” cards, which explain what to do when you’re stopped by police or immigration agents. The organization’s free Mobile Justice app records interactions with police and sends them immediately to the ACLU. Even if the police seize your phone, they can’t delete these videos before they’re uploaded to the ACLU’s servers.
Disclaimer: This article doesn’t constitute legal advice and isn’t meant as a substitute for the advice that an attorney or a legal organization can provide you. Contact your local affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union for more information.
Rachel Crowell is a Midwest-based writer exploring science and math. Rachel lives in Iowa with Delilah, a golden retriever a stranger once called “the cutest thing in America.” Outside of STEM topics, Rachel welcomes writing opportunities on everything from art to finance. Follow Rachel on Twitter at @writesRCrowell. Reach Rachel at email@example.com.