What Are Your Rights During a Police Traffic Stop?

By Ralph Heibutzki
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Getting stopped and questioned by police is a reality that nearly all drivers face at some point in their traveling life. Whether the outcome is a citation, verbal warning or criminal charge, most motorists have only a hazy understanding, at best, of their constitutional rights. Knowing when to stand on those rights can make a big difference in how the actual traffic stop turns out.

Driver Responses

Driver Responses

Acknowledging the stop by slowing down and pulling over to the nearest safe area is the driver's first response. For stops that occur at night, drivers fearing the possibility of police impersonators are within their legal rights to proceed to a more visible public place, such as a service station, for example.

Remaining Silent

Not speaking to officers is a basic legal right.

Refusing to answer questions beyond providing insurance, license and registration information ranks among the most basic legal rights, as outlined by the U.S. Constitution's Fifth Amendment. As long as the driver's attitude isn't misread as combativeness, there is no immediate problem from invoking this right against self-incrimination.

Vehicle Searches

Vehicle searches are governed by specific constitutional doctrines.

Searching a vehicle is limited under the "plain view doctrine," which requires officers obtain warrants for looking at the interior, such as the glove compartment, or any area that's not visible at a glance. Unless the driver consents, the officer must find a probable cause to search the vehicle.

Body Searches

Body Searches

If an officer requests a body search, he is only allowed to pat down outer layers of clothing to check drivers and passengers for possible weapons. If necessary, the officer may reach into a pocket to pull out the weapon. Otherwise, going through someone's pockets is only permissible at the time of arrest.

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