￼You are most likely to encounter the police if your car is pulled over for a traffic stop. Over 40% of the contacts that people have with police occur that way, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Many get off with a verbal warning. Only about half of all stops result in a traffic ticket. And most traffic stops end without incident.
But traffic stops can also turn violent. Tensions can run high. You may feel that the stop is illegal and that the police are violating department policy. The officers can overreact. But police misconduct is not solved on the street. We have represented many people who were seriously injured or killed during traffic stops.
Your priority during the traffic stop must be to survive without injury. The following information can help you and your family survive a traffic stop.
What you should know about the traffic stop
Consider how the police think. Police training emphasizes the importance of looking for potential threats to safety during a stop. Well-trained officers will always be assessing the risk. You should assume that the police will be considering:
- The reason for the stop. The police will interpret a stop for a minor traffic violation as less suspicious than a stop for a felony.
- The number of people in the car. The greater the number of people in the car, the greater they will perceive a threat.
- The location of the stop. The police will be less suspicious of violence in a well-lighted, low-crime neighborhood. They will also prefer locations where there are fewer pedestrians around. Police are trained to look for areas to use as safe cover and concealment if the stop turns violent.
- The behavior of the occupants. You have the right to argue with the police. But the police will more likely feel threatened if you swear and argue with them.
- The officer’s resources. Officers who have backup on the scene or nearby will feel less threatened.
Bottom line: To protect yourself, avoid doing anything to increase the officers’ level of concern. Officers who fear for their safety are more likely to use force against you.
Eight Tips for Surviving the Traffic Stop
1. Stop your car in a safe place. Turn off the car, open the window part way and place your hands on the wheel.
2. Ask your passengers to remain quiet, still, and to place their hands in plain view such as on their laps.
3. Be polite. Don’t swear or argue. You must provide your name, but you do not need to answer any questions.
4. Move slowly. Avoid any sudden movements, especially toward the floorboard, rear seat, or passenger side. Do not immediately reach into your glove box, console pocket or backseat. The officer may interpret these movements as an attempt to hide illegal goods or to grab a weapon.
5. Keep your seatbelt fastened until the officer has seen you wearing it.
6. Wait for the officer to request your license, registration and proof of insurance. If the documents are out of reach, tell the officer where they are and reach for them slowly. Otherwise, remain still and keep your hands on the steering wheel.
7. At night, turn on your car’s interior lights. Understand that officers will turn on the patrol car’s headlights and spotlights for safety. It helps illuminate the interior of your car.
8. Both drivers and passengers have the right to remain silent. If you are a passenger, you can ask if you are free to leave. If the officer says yes, sit silently or calmly leave. Even if the officer says no, you have the right to remain silent.
Police misconduct is not solved on the street
The police stop may be illegal. The officer may be violating departmental policy. But your safety comes first. The place to address police misconduct is in a courtroom- not on the street. Your priority during a traffic stop is to survive without injury. If you follow these pointers, you are more likely to survive the traffic stop.
Most of the time traffic stops are brief and end without incidence. But sometimes the stops become more intrusive. Approximately 5% of all drivers are subject to police searches during a traffic stop.
In the future, we will consider what rights you have when the police want to search you during a traffic stop.