What do you do if you are being pulled over by a police officer?

Your battle to beat a ticket or worse begins the instant you realize you're being pulled over by a police officer. If a police car is following you with its siren blaring or emergency lights flashing, pull over to the right quickly (but safely) and come to a complete stop in a safe place. Do not be one of those people who nonchalantly continues to drive and pretends to be amazed at having been pulled over. This tactic will just irritate an officer and give him ammunition to claim at trial that you were inattentive (and therefore likely to have violated a traffic law).

Pulling over right away is not an admission of guilt. It just means that you were very alert to everything that was happening around you. Also, by stopping as soon as you can, you'll have a better chance of figuring out exactly where the officer says you drove too fast, made an illegal U-turn, didn't signal, etc. This information can be useful in preparing your defense.

Pull over in a way that will be most likely to calm down an angry or annoyed traffic officer. Use your turn signal to indicate any lane changes from left to right, and slow down fairly quickly, but not so quickly that the officer will have to brake to avoid hitting you. Pull over as far to the right as possible, so that when the officer comes up to your widow, he won't have to worry about being clipped by vehicles in the right lane.

Avoid Giving the Officer an Excuse to Search
A police officer who stops you for a traffic violation is normally not allowed to search your vehicle. However, there are several exceptions to this. An officer who observes you trying to either hide something under the seat or throw something out the window may legally search your car. Once the cop is on your rear bumper with his spotlight silhouetting your every move, he's watching for any sort of "furtive movement." A sudden lowering of one or both shoulders will tip him off that you're attempting to hide something under the seat. This gives him legal cause to search a car, and he'll know exactly what to look for and where. Police have had more experience watching people try to hide things than you've had trying to hide them.

Also, once you are stopped, a police officer may seize any illegal objects in your car that are in "plain view" (like open beer or wine bottles, joints or roach clips). Once they see the object, they can open the car door to reach in and get it. Once they do, they may come across other objects that are in plain view and shouldn't be in your car, and they can seize these too. (If you are pulled over at night, there is somewhat less risk of plain-view observations if the car is not parked under a bright street lamp. However, an officer can still shine his flashlight into the car.)

Finally, your car and its occupants may be searched if any occupant in it-passenger or driver-is physically arrested. If you're arrested and your car is towed, the police may make a supposed "inventory search" afterward, even if they have no reason to suspect there is anything illegal inside.

Right After You've Stopped
After you've pulled over onto a safe spot, you might want to show the officer a few other token courtesies. At this point, you have little to lose and perhaps something to gain.

First off, roll down your window all the way. You may also want to place your hands on the steering wheel, and, if it's dark, turn on your interior light. This will tend to allay any fears the officer may have. (After all, police officers are killed every day in such "ordinary" traffic­ stop situations, and the officer's approach to the vehicle is the potentially most dangerous.) It may offend your dignity a little, but remember that you're just doing a few simple things to put the officer in an optimal frame of mind.

Finally, don't start rummaging through your back pocket for your wallet and license, or in your glove compartment for your registration, until the officer asks you for them. For all he knows, you could be reaching for something else.

Should You Get Out of Your Car?
An officer who stops you for an alleged traffic violation has the right to insist that you and your passengers get out of your car. You should do so if asked. But what if the officer doesn't ask you to get out of your car?

Getting out of your car may make it easier for you to check road conditions, the weather, the place the violation supposedly occurred, and, in radar-detected speeding violations, perhaps even the read-out on the officer's radar detector.

On the other hand, you may wish to appear innocuous. After all, if the officer thinks that you are preparing yourself to contest the ticket, she will be sure to write copious notes on the back of her copy of the ticket, to refresh her memory if she has to testify later at a trial if you want to look around and take notes, you can come back and do it a few minutes after the officer leaves.

To put an officer at ease-and hopefully to make him reluctant to cite you-there are a few things you can do when pulled over. First, put out any cigarettes, put away any chewing gum, and put both your hands on the steering wheel. At night, turn your inside dome light on before putting your hands on the wheel. Silly as all this sounds, it signals to the officer that you have a compliant attitude, and aren't going to reach for a weapon-a legitimate fear for traffic cops. The more cooperative you can be, the more possible it is that the officer will let you off with a warning.

Many police officers prefer that you stay in your car, and will tell you to stay there if you start to get out. If this happens, obviously you should cooperate. If you get out of the car against the officer's orders, don't be surprised to see a gun pointing at you. Cops are trained to expect the worst. When you get out of your car they may assume you're about to pull a weapon or attempt to flee. So, don't panic, and make it apparent to the officer that you intend no harm.
If an officer has any reason to believe that you might be dangerous, she has a right to conduct a quick "pat-down" search of your outer clothing while she is standing next to you, to make sure you don't have a concealed knife or gun that you could pull on her. If the officer feels any weapon-sized object during the pat-down search, she can reach in and get it. Also, the officer's good-faith belief that you may be dangerous justifies a search of the passenger compartment of your car for weapons.

Talking to the Officer
Many people stopped by an officer make the mistake of saying the wrong thing, and failing to say the right things. As we see below, a case can be won or lost depending on what you say-or don't say-to the officer.

Don't Admit Anything
Many drivers who are pulled over destroy any chance they might have had to successfully contest a violation in court, because they mistakenly believe they can talk their way out of it. This is usually not true.

One of the first things traffic cops learn in the police academy is to decide, before leaving their vehicle, whether they're going to give a ticket or just a warning. They may act as though they still haven't made up their minds and are going to let you off only if you'll "cooperate." Don't fall for this. The hesitating officer is often just trying to appear open-minded in order to extract admissions out of you, to use them against you in court if necessary. (Your admissions can be used against you even though the officer doesn't give you a "Miranda" warning of your right to remain silent. You still have the right to remain silent, but a traffic officer doesn't have to tell you.) The strategy is to try to get you to admit either that you committed a violation, or that you were so careless, inattentive, or negligent that you don't know whether you did or not. One way this is commonly done is for the officer to act friendly. If you learn nothing, learn that a police officer with a ticket book in his hand is not your friend.

On the other hand, you have nothing to lose by being polite, even charming. After all, this officer may be one of the few who has decided to give you only a warning. Would you like to change that by acting like a jerk?

Don't speak first. Especially don't start off with a defensive or hostile "What's the problem?" or similar words. Let the officer start talking. He will probably ask to see your license, vehicle registration, and proof of insurance. Many people make the mistake of insisting the officer tell them why he stopped them, before they'll comply. Don't make that mistake. Reply "Okay," or "Sure," then hand over the documents.

The officer then might ask you the sort of question whose lack of a definite answer would imply guilt, . like "Do you know why I stopped you?" Or, he might ask, "Do you know how fast you were going?" Your answers, if any, should be noncommittal and brief, like a simple "No' to the first question or a very confident, "Yes, I do," to the second. (Most officers are not impressed with a "Sir" appended to every yes or no. Try to avoid saying "Yes, sir" more than once, if at all) If he then tells you how fast he thinks you were going or what he thinks you did, don't argue. Either give a noncommittal answer, like "I see," or no answer at all. Silence is not an admission of guilt and cannot be used against you in court.

If the officer persists, you may want to try to change the subject with something like, "Is it possible to pay the fine by mail?" This statement changes the subject, avoids an actual admission, and lulls the officer into thinking you're one of those 19 out of20 who'll pay your ticket without a fight-which will make it harder for him to remember you later on in court. If changing the subject doesn't work, and the officer still asks you pointed questions, you may simply have to say that you have nothing more to say or that you prefer not to answer any questions. And don't fall for the inevitable, "Got something to hide?" If he says this, just tell him, "I have nothing more to say. Please just write the ticket and we can both be on our way." Or you can say, "Do I have the right to
remain silent?"

Remain Quiet or Ask a Few Questions?
Traffic officers issue many citations each day. By the time your case goes to trial, the officer who stopped and cited you may have issued dozens or even hundreds of tickets since. That being so, chances are good that he won't recall the events pertaining to your ticket very well by the time he has to come to court to testify against you, unless you've either committed an unusually outrageous offense or done some­thing to focus his attention. If you're cited for a routine moving violation, you may be better off saying very little in order to increase the chance that the officer won't recall the circumstances of the alleged violation later on, and won't be tempted to make copious notes in anticipation of testifying in court about the incident later. (Needless to say, an officer is more likely to remember you, and more likely to make notes, if you are rude or offensive, so you should always be polite.)

On the other hand, you may wish to ask the officer a few polite questions, even at the cost of fixing you better in his memory, in the hope that he will give you information which may prove helpful. You may especially want to ask questions if you've done something else that will stand out in the officer's mind-like demanding that your trial be held in the county seat. In this situation, you have nothing to lose-there's no use keeping quiet when you have already made clear that you intend to fight your ticket.

If you decide to ask questions, you should try to get the officer to commit himself to where he was when he saw you, how far he followed you, and to similar facts noted below. If you're able to write this information down while it's fresh in your memory, you may be able to use it in court later on, especially if he changes his story. One way to do this without tipping him off that you intend to fight the ticket and without making an actual admission is to smile and say, "Could you please tell me how you nailed me?" Most officers will be more than happy to brag a little about this to you, unless they're expecting you to contest the ticket. If you have a witness in your car, so much the better. While some officers will refuse to answer more than a few direct questions, others will very happily answer most questions, if only to convince you that you haven't got a chance if you take it to court.

You might consider asking some of the following questions:

  • "Where were you when you first saw me?" (If he tells you, you can go back to that spot later to check what he was able to see. Any obstructions to the view might show that he may have missed an essential element of the alleged violation.) Never ask a question that also contains an admission, like "Where were you hiding when I ran the red light?"
  • If the charge is speeding: "How did you determine my speed?" (He will probably tell you this without your having to ask, particularly if he used radar. He may even show you a speed reading. Most people mistakenly assume that radar is infallible and will give up all hope of fighting a ticket if they see a radar reading.)
  • If he did not use radar: "How far did you follow me?" (If he followed you for just a short distance prior to charging you with speeding, you can later argue in court that he rapidly dosed the distance between his car and yours, but wrongly attributed that speed to you.
  • If he used radar to determine your speed: "May I see the speed reading on the radar unit?" (Although the officer is not required to do this, the chances are good that she will be happy to, in order to convince you that you don't stand a chance of successfully fighting the ticket. This is called "selling the ticket" to you, and is such standard practice that if the officer refuses to show you his radar reading of your speed, it suggests something is amiss.

If you have been stopped by a particularly talkative officer, you may also want to ask one or more of the following questions:

  • "Where were you located when you took the reading?"

  • 'Where did you see my car when you took the reading?"
  • "Do you know the angle of the spread of the beam (the beam width angle)? How many degrees?"

Finally, always keep in mind that the more questions you ask, the more likely the officer is to realize that you intend to fight the ticket. This will tip him off to write detailed notes to himself. So don't ask questions just for the sake of doing so, or to annoy the officer. Also, never say, "See you in court," or words to that effect. You might as well say, "Be sure to take good notes about this, to refresh your memory about it when you have to go to court."

If You've Been Drinking
If you've had anything substantial to drink, it's best not to engage the officer in any conversation beyond brief, noncommittal answers. No use letting him hear your speech or giving him extra chances to study your eyes closely. Probably he'll ask the inevitable, "How much have you had to drink?" Many people will admit to "just a glass of wine" or "just two beers" in the hope that the officer will believe them and let them go. Rather, the officer will assume that you've had much more, and such an admission will do you no good. In addition, your statement that you have been drinking can be used against you in court.

The best answer to questions about whether or how much you've been drinking is, "I prefer to remain silent," unless, of course, you've had little or nothing to drink.

Which brings us to a minor point. Did you ever wonder why the cops always shine their flashlights right into your eyes at night? It's not necessarily because they're mildly sadistic (though some are). Rather, it's to see whether your eyes are watery or bloodshot, and also to see how fast the pupils of your eyes contract upon sudden exposure to the light. A slow contraction of the pupils, or none at all, suggests you're under the influence. Therefore, it's wise to avoid looking directly into the flashlight or the officer's eyes if you've had any alcohol, drugs, or even prescription medication (particularly tranquilizers). Try to look down at the ground or at your wallet or purse as you remove your driver's license. It's also helpful to look directly into a lighted street lamp for a moment to contract your pupils before the officer gets a chance to shine the light into your eyes.

Making the Place of Trial Inconvenient for the Officer
If your residence or workplace is located closer to the "county seat" than to the local court near where you're pulled over, then, in California, you have a right to insist that the officer send the ticket to the county seat. This little known provision of the Vehicle Code can often work to your advantage, as we discuss below. Of course, this will probably tip the officer off that you intend to fight the ticket, and may result in the officer taking detailed notes. However, it may be worth it.

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