Have you ever been stopped by the police? There’s a good chance of this: the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that the most common reason a person has an encounter with the police is being in a traffic stop.
If—or more likely when—this happens to you, it’s important that you know your rights and responsibilities during the encounter. Knowing your responsibilities helps to ensure that the encounter goes smoothly, and knowing your rights helps to make sure that they are respected.
Let’s go over your responsibilities and rights to prepare you for a future traffic stop.
Your Responsibilities during a Traffic Stop
When you hear a police siren and see blue and red lights flashing in your rearview mirror, here are a few things that are required and/or expected of you: (Note: you must take these actions regardless of whether or not you believe you were pulled over for a valid reason.)
Pull over in a safe place.
You must pull over to a safe place as quickly as possible and come to a complete stop. You should use your turn signal and slow down quickly—but not so quickly that the officer has to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting your car! Being in “a safe place” means that you are as far out of the way of traffic as possible. If you can’t immediately pull over safely, you should use a hand signal to alert the officer and then drive the speed limit until you can do so.
Stay in your vehicle unless directed.
After stopping, do not exit your vehicle or unbuckle your seatbelt. These actions might be viewed as threatening by the officer. Instead, remain in your vehicle with your hands within view (on the steering wheel, for example). Your passengers should also remain in the car with their hands in view.
If the officer tells you to get out of the car, you must do so. If this happens, you should exit the vehicle slowly and calmly.
Roll down your window.
You must roll down your window enough to communicate with the officer and pass documents (like your license and registration) to the officer.
Comply with requests for your license and registration.
You are legally required to carry your license, registration, and proof of insurance while driving. Before doing anything else, a police officer will likely ask you for these documents. If your documents aren’t within reach or view (like in the glove box or center console), tell the officer what you are doing and slowly reach for them. Sudden movements—like reaching into your glove compartment—could be misinterpreted by the officer; he or she might believe that you are reaching for a weapon.
Do not argue with the officer.
Whether you are pulled over for speeding or on suspicion of drunk driving, you might think that the charges are unfair; however, this is not the time to argue. Arguing with a police officer during a traffic stop will not help you avoid a citation or arrest; in fact, doing this will more likely make the situation worse. It’s best to remain calm.
If you believe that your charges are not valid or that your rights have been violated, get in touch with an attorney.
Stop at checkpoints.
Sobriety checkpoints are conducted to catch drivers who have been drinking or using drugs and to deter impaired driving. During these checkpoints, law enforcement may stop every vehicle or every third (or fourth, fifth, etc.) vehicle. If you are approaching a checkpoint, you are required to stop. You may be waved on (if it’s not your “turn”), or you may have to briefly communicate with an officer. (Learn more about sobriety checkpoints in our previous blog post.)
Your Rights during a Traffic Stop
Just as you have responsibilities during a traffic stop, so do police officers. Police officers are required by law to respect your rights below:
Under the Fifth Amendment, you have the right not to incriminate yourself in a crime. That means that you don’t have to answer an officer’s questions (beyond requests for your license, registration, and proof of insurance). For example, you do not have to answer these very common questions: “Do you know how fast you were going?”, “Do you know why I pulled you over?”, and “Have you been drinking tonight?” It’s perfectly fine to respond by saying, “No” or “I’m not sure.” You can also say that you would like to invoke your right to remain silent.
It’s important to remember that an officer’s questions are not part of a friendly chat: they are designed to get you to admit that you broke the law. They can and will be used against you as evidence in court. It’s better to stay quiet and calm.
Refuse requests to searches.
Under the Fourth Amendment, you are protected against unreasonable searches and seizures (with few exceptions). If the officer asks to search your vehicle, you don’t have to consent. Don’t be misled: if the officer says something like, “You don’t mind if I take a look in your car, do you?”, this is a request for consent to search your vehicle. If the officer asks to search your person after asking you to exit the vehicle, you can also refuse this request.
Remember that the officer is looking for evidence of a crime and that it’s a good idea to exercise your rights. It’s important to note that you should only verbally refuse search requests. Never physically resist; doing so will escalate the situation and may result in charges of assaulting a police officer.
There are a few exceptions to your Fourth Amendment right. An officer can pat you down after asking you to exit your vehicle in order to search for weapons. If an officer sees something illegal (like drugs, opened alcohol containers, or weapons) within plain view, they can search your vehicle without your consent. An officer can also perform a search without your consent if he or she has probable cause of a crime. (For example, he or she might search your car for drugs after smelling marijuana.) And of course, an officer can perform a search if he or she has a warrant.
Refuse physical or chemical tests.
You have the right to refuse physical and chemical tests—like the polygraph (or “lie detector” test), field sobriety tests, and the Breathalyzer.
You cannot be penalized for refusing to perform a lie detector or field sobriety tests. However, refusing a Breathalyzer does come with penalties. Under Ohio’s implied consent law, the penalty for refusing a Breathalyzer is (at minimum) a one-year license suspension. (We talk about the Breathalyzer test more in a previous blog post.)
Ask for a lawyer.
If you have been arrested, you have what are called “Miranda rights.” The officer must tell you these rights after arresting you and before questioning you. These rights are the right to remain silent, the right to know that anything you say can be used against you in court, the right to an attorney, and the right to have an attorney provided for you if you can’t afford one.
If you are arrested (such as for drunk driving) after a traffic stop, always remain silent and ask for a lawyer. The police officer is required to stop any questioning and allow you to speak to an attorney.
Call Us with Questions
The next time you are stopped, we hope this post helps you remember your rights and responsibilities.
If you have been charged with an OVI (drunk driving), contact us as soon as possible. We’ll defend your rights and fiercely advocate for you every step of the way. Call us today to speak with a knowledgeable, experienced, and determined Cincinnati OVI attorney.