How to Act During a Traffic Stop
“Do You Know Why I Pulled You Over”?
How you handle this question can mean the difference between simplicity and complexity, or the difference between a momentary detour and a monumental, prolonged detention. Notice that I said “handle” the question – you are under no obligation to answer it. Most drivers cannot read the minds of law enforcement.
The modern American traffic stop can be a stressful moment for both the driver and the police: the officer usually does not know the driver and the driver’s mood, and whether danger is lurking; the driver also is surprised to have been stopped, taken away from what was until that moment uninterrupted driving.
The situation can also be stressful for you because you are going to have to deal with the traffic citation or potentially something worse. The situation can be stressful for the officer because the officer usually doesn't know how the situation will end, and it could be a dangerous situation for the officer if drugs, weapons, or other contraband is involved or even suspected.
Below are some tips for dealing with a traffic stop, whether you are pulled over on the freeway or a city street, and whether the police officer is a member of the Washington State Patrol, Seattle Police Department, or is a county sheriff.
If you see sirens and lights behind you:
• Immediately pull over to the nearest right-hand edge, shoulder, or curb of the roadway.
• When pulling over, place your vehicle at a location that is clear of any intersections.
• Stop and remain in such position until the authorized emergency or police vehicle has passed or, if a police vehicle, remain parked and wait for the officer to approach your vehicle.
If you are being pulled over and an officer is approaching our car:
• Stay in your vehicle and keep your hands visible.
• If it is dark outside - turn on your interior vehicle light, if it is safe to do so.
• Avoid furtive movements.
• Have your driver license, insurance card, and registration in locations that it are safely and readily accessible. A good place to keep one’s driver license and insurance card are adjacent to one another in one’s wallet. Registration can be kept in a number of places, but a signed, up to date copy should be inside the vehicle.
• If you are going to reach for any documents, tell the officer that you are going to reach to for such items BEFORE you reach for them.
• An officer can detain you so long as to request your driver’s license, proof of insurance, and registration, to identify you, and to issue you a notice of infraction. Longer detentions can occur but need to be based on clear, articulable facts.
• If you are issued a civil or criminal citation, accept it at the roadside, even if you don't agree with it. Accepting the citation is not an admission of guilt and you will have the opportunity to contest the citation and the officer’s version of events in court at a later date.
• Beyond furnishing information simple information such as one’s true name and license, insurance, and registration, you are not obligated to answer questions. Remaining silent cannot be held against you in a court of law. Remaining silent is not being rude; you can remain polite and silent.
• In the less likely event that the traffic stop results in a custodial arrest, ask to speak with an attorney and remain silent. If the officer continues to ask questions, ask again to speak with an attorney, but otherwise remain silent.
Following these tips can make a traffic stop more smooth for all involved and will make a potentially stressful situation better for the driver and officer.