We are often asked what to do when contacted by police. This question turns on the specific situation. This post is the first in a series about common ways people come into contact with law enforcement.
People usually meet police through traffic stops. You can look at some statistics here. About half of all traffic stops result in a ticket. So, what should you do when you see flashing red lights in your rear view mirror?
First, find a safe place to pull your car over. The best place to stop is a place where you could otherwise park your car. This lessens the chance of a tow in case things go wrong.
Next, turn your inside dome light on if the stop is at night. This helps police see inside the vehicle. You want to do this slowly, intentionally, and calmly. You may otherwise be accused of making “furtive movements”, which is police slang for you hiding things.
After the light is on, roll down your window far enough to be able to talk to the officer. After you’ve done so, place your hands on the steering wheel and leave them there.
An officer will ordinarily approach the driver side of the car. If there is heavy traffic, he or she may approach the passenger side. If so, roll down the passenger window far enough to talk. Then, replace your hands back on the wheel.
After the officer asks you for license and proof of insurance, you should provide them. Narrate your hand actions before you move them. It sounds silly, but speaking out loud and saying, “I’m going to reach into my right pocket and retrieve my license” may keep you alive. It shouldn’t be this way. Officers are there to protect you, not the other way around. But you never know what an officer is thinking (even if they tell you).
You may wish to remain silent during this encounter. Officers will often ask if you know why you were stopped. If you tell them, you may have just admitted to a crime or other infraction. You just made their job easy. If you decide to remain silent, you must say so. This is another oxymoron found in the law, but you must invoke the right to remain silent by saying so. You may also request an attorney if you are arrested. But again, you have to request one.
Instead, if you prefer to answer some questions but not others, you may do so. If you are heading to a drug den to score your latest stash, you may not want to talk about your destination. But answers such as “heading home from work” are usually innocuous and calming. You want to cooperate where you can. You don’t want to obstruct. But there is a fine line between obstructing, cooperating, and confessing. Walk that line carefully.
You may always ask if you are free to leave. If the officer says yes, cautiously and calmly pull back into traffic and drive away. If you are free to leave but the vehicle not (sounds silly, I know), you may wish to walk away from your car. Lock it up first. Roll up the windows. Make sure it is in a place where it can be lawfully parked. Otherwise, it will be searched and it may be towed.
You should also know that in Minnesota, most traffic stops are recorded. The same trigger that turns the flashing lights on also triggers the recording device in a squad vehicle’s camera system. The recording device backtracks about a minute or two, which is usually long enough to catch the reason for the stop. The squad video will almost always be used as evidence, so be careful.
Finally, don’t argue your case on the side of the road. Many times, a police will accuse a driver of speeding at ten miles an hour over the speed limit. The driver may respond that he or she was only traveling five over. Crafty police stop the encounter and write a speeding ticket on the spot. The driver just admitted to speeding. Also, police have guns, tasers, vests, radios, and back-up. You don’t. You don’t want an up-close demonstration of those tools, either.
Like any profession, law enforcement attracts some bad eggs. There are good police, too. Just remember, their job is to serve and protect the public. We may disagree on what that means. Some police believe that means writing as many tickets and making as many arrests as possible. We don’t. That’s what we hope to resolve in the courtroom.