What Should You Do During a Traffic Stop?

A simple traffic stop can mushroom into a host of criminal charges

One of the most important tools for discovering criminal activity for law enforcement is the traffic laws. Here's why. In most people's day-to-day life, the police have no legal grounds with which to stop a person, to ask them questions or to make any evaluation concerning their personal state or their fitness for any activity.

But once you are in a motor vehicle, you become subject to all of the traffic laws in the Missouri Statutes, and the county or city ordinances that govern the roads on which you to drive. Because there are hundreds of these laws, it is very likely that you may violate one or more of them at any time during your drive.

Reasonable Suspicion

They may be minor violations; you may only exceed the speed limit by two or three miles per hour, have a burnt-out light on your license plate, cross the centerline or fog line momentarily or you may have failed to come to a complete stop at a stop sign. Nonetheless, these minor violations provide an officer with reasonable suspicion of a criminal infraction and authorize that officer to stop your vehicle.

Probable Cause

What happens next is the problem. As the officer approaches your vehicle, he or she now can engage in a closer inspection of your vehicle and your person. If you appear sober, do not smell of alcohol or marijuana and have nothing that appears to be drugs or other contraband visible, they will likely ask you questions in an effort to get you to say something that raises their suspicion or they lose interest and either issue a warning or write a ticket for the traffic offense for which they ostensibly stopped your vehicle.

During the stop they may ask you if they can search your vehicle. You do not have to consent to the search. If you consent, this ends your Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable searches. If you consent, they can take as much time as the like and examine your back seat or trunk, looking for contraband. If they find something illegal, you will have difficulty claiming the search was illegal, as you authorized it.

On the other hand, if you have drugs, guns or other potential contraband visible in your vehicle, if you smell of alcohol or if your vehicle is foggy with marijuana smoke, they may arrest you, and then can search your person and the passenger compartment to ensure you do not have access to weapons that could place them at risk.

Be polite

No matter the circumstance, it is imperative that you always remain polite and courteous when speaking to the officer, no matter their demeanor. They carry a gun and are authorized to kill to protect themselves or public safety. Do not give them any reason to feel threatened or that they need to escalate their control.

Nonetheless, you should exercise extreme care in saying anything to the officer. You should only answer a direct question truthfully, but you are under no obligation to tell them where you were going or what you had been doing. The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects this right. If they ask if you know why you were stopped, the best answer is a polite "No." If you say yes, you are admitting guilt and very likely getting a ticket at best or you're providing grounds for your arrest.

It depends on of the facts of your case

One difficulty with discussing these issues is that every situation is factually different, and facts matter greatly. The mood of the officer, how you are dressed, if you have had anything to drink, if there is anything illegal in your vehicle, if you are combative, if you open your window all the way, if the officer searches your vehicle without consent or lies about smelling alcohol or marijuana in your vehicle, can all change the potential outcome of the stop.

At some point, you may be uncertain if you are going to be arrested. One question you can ask the officer is "Am I free to go?" This is important, because if you are being detained, the officer must have "probable cause" for an arrest. They may be asking lots of questions and asking if they can search your vehicle ("Mind if I look in your trunk?") because they know they lack probable cause to make your arrest and are engaged in a "fishing expedition," trying to find cause for your arrest.

If they answer "yes" to your question, you should then politely leave. The longer you stay in their presence, the greater the chance you will say or do something that provides the probable cause they are looking for.

And don't smoke marijuana in a vehicle or drive drunk

Because of the complexity of traffic rules, virtually anyone could be stopped at any time. Keep that in mind, and refrain from drinking too much alcohol or using marijuana before driving. Never use them in your vehicle as the mere odor emanating from your window may provide the probable cause necessary for a search of your vehicle or your arrest.

If you are arrested, the most important thing to remember is never speak with the police without an attorney. Once they arrest you, place you in custody, and read your Miranda rights, they probably will begin asking questions. Politely tell them you want to see an attorney and that the interrogation is ended. No matter what they tell you, remain silent after that.

Remember, that line when they read you your rights about "anything you say may be used against you in a court of law?" They mean it.