Many people spend their entire lives without having any interaction with the police. However, one of the most common places a person will encounter a member of law enforcement is on the road while behind the wheel of their car. Whether you are a teenage driver who just got their license or an experienced driver who remembers cars before power steering, getting pulled over by the police can be a stressful situation. There are any number of reasons an officer may want to pull someone over. It could be something as simple as a burned-out taillight or it could be something more serious like the officer suspects you were speeding, or worse yet, operating your vehicle while under the influence of alcohol.
Either way, there must be SOME reason the officer decides to initiate a stop. The United States Constitution and the Illinois Constitution protect against unreasonable search or seizure. A traffic stop is considered a seizure and thus, requires the officer to have enough evidence to establish reasonable suspicion that a crime has occurred prior to stopping a motorist. If the officer observes any traffic violations or reckless driving, this may be sufficient legal basis for the officer to pull you over.
No matter what the officer’s reasons for the stop, it is important to understand that how you act towards the officer can have a large impact on how they act towards you. That being said, there are a few things you can do to help the process go as smoothly as possible.
1) PULL OVER: If you see Red and Blue lights behind you, and/or hear sirens, put on your turn signal, slow down, and safely pull over to the far right side of the road or shoulder. Try to avoid a sudden deceleration, and don’t stop on a bridge or next to a concrete wall or metal guardrail. If it is unsafe to pull over, or if you cannot tell whether there is actually an officer trying to pull you over, you may put on your hazard lights, call 9-1-1 and ask them to verify the officer while you slowly drive to the next available, well lit, safe location.
2) STAY IN THE VEHICLE: As the officer approaches your vehicle, stay seated and keep both your hands in sight and on the steering wheel. Getting out of your car may be viewed as aggressive behavior and may increase tensions. The officer may ask you for certain documents, i.e., your driver’s license, vehicle registration, and proof of insurance. If so, you must provide them, but do not reach for these documents until the officer asks and let them know what you’re doing. It is advisable to keep these documents in a secure location such as glove compartment or center counsel so that they may be retrieved quickly. Also, if it is nighttime, it is permissible to turn on your vehicle’s interior lights.
3) REMAIN CALM & BE POLITE: This point could be number 1. Even though you may be nervous, anxious, upset, frustrated, or scared, being respectful and polite with the officer will help defuse the situation. It may make the difference between you getting a written citation and being let go with simply a warning.
4) DO NOT ADMIT FAULT: Remember, ANYTHING you say, can and will be used against you. So, even though you do have an obligation to provide identification and other documents, you do NOT have to answer any additional questions that the officer asks. If you are asked “do you know why I pulled you over?” you can simply say “no” and remain silent afterwards. Your refusal to answer questions may frustrate the officer, but it is not an admission of guilt.
5) GET OUT, IF REQUESTED: If the officer asks you to exit the vehicle, do so without argument. Once out of the car, comply with the officer’s requests. Remember, even if you feel as though the stop was unjustified, there is no sense in arguing your case on the side of the road. Also, an officer may frisk you once you step out of the vehicle. This means that they may pat down the outside of your clothing. They can do this only if they have probable cause to believe you are carrying a weapon. You do have the right to verbally refuse any further searching of your body or clothing. Avoid physically resisting the search and later, discuss with your attorney whether the search was improper. Remember, the courtroom is the place to plead your case, not during the stop.
6) RESPECTFULLY REFUSE TESTING: Whether to submit to sobriety testing or not can be a tricky decision. On one hand, it is completely legal to refuse testing in Illinois. However, if you are ultimately arrested and you refused testing, there may be additional repercussions on your driving privileges.
7) DO NOT GIVE CONSENT TO SEARCH YOUR VEHICLE: Most people are familiar with the fact that the police need a warrant to search your vehicle. However, there are several exceptions to this general rule. One of the exceptions is what is if the officer has probable cause. This means that they reasonably believe a crime has been committed. Things such as the smell of alcohol or drugs or seeing open containers of alcohol in the car are sufficient to establish probable cause to search your vehicle. Generally speaking, traffic violations such as speeding, or a broken taillight are not enough for probable cause. That said, it is recommended that you politely assert your rights and if asked, do not give consent for the officer to search your car.
8) DO NOT RESIST: If the traffic stop results in an arrest, allow yourself to be placed in custody. This applies even if you believe you have not committed a crime. Remember, there will be a time and place to argue, and the side of the road is not it. If you resist the officer’s attempts at placing you under arrest, you may receive additional charges. Also, if the stop was truly unwarranted, then resisting may make it more difficult for your attorney to advocate on your behalf.
9) REMAIN SILENT: As mentioned above, you do not have an obligation to answer police questions. If you have been arrested, and are questioned by officers, politely inform them that you will not be answering their questions and you will be seeking legal representation.
10) KNOW YOUR PASSENGERS: Generally speaking, passengers are not legally responsible for something the driver has done. As such, a passenger is free to leave during a traffic stop unless, there are other circumstances that lead the officer to believe the passenger has committed a crime. However, the officer may ask your passenger to get out of the car for questioning. If this happens; even though you have remained silent, the answers your passenger provides may be used against you.
Following these tips can help make what may already be stressful situation proceed without any further issues.
Keep in mind, officers are trained to treat drivers with respect and dignity. However, this does not always happen. If you feel that the officer who pulled you over is acting inappropriately, you may ask that they provide their name and badge number. Officers should honor your request and provide this information. It is recommended that you create a written log of what took place as soon as possible.
Written by Attorney Jason Tempin
Rockford Traffic Attorney