Written by Jon, our fellow attorney and legal expert.
Everybody’s been there before: driving down the road at night, minding your own business, just trying to get where you’re going, and all of the sudden your car is lit up with flashing red and blue light. Your mind races- maybe you’ve been smoking earlier in the night, maybe you’ve been smoking in the car, maybe you’re sober as a judge but have a little pot on you?
Whether you’re in a situation like this or simply being pulled over on your way to church with nothing to fear, it always helps to know what your rights are when dealing with the police. Knowing your rights can help you handle the situation calmly, and not expose you to the risk of getting a ticket or worse, being arrested.
First things first, try to avoid doing something stupid and obvious that will get you pulled over.
This includes always wearing your seatbelt. Again, always wear your seatbelt.
Make sure your car is in working order, including all headlights, taillights, brake lights, even the little license plate lights that help light up your back plate.
Make sure your vehicle registration is current, and if you live in a state where you need updated stickers every year for your plate, make sure you are not expired.
And folks, while it may be 2015 and the laws are shifting in our favor, DON’T SMOKE POT IN OR AROUND YOUR CAR!! More times than not, people are pulled over and eventually arrested because they don’t take care of the basics, and provide the police with a legitimate reason for pulling them over in the first place.
Now, if you’ve been stopped anyway: be polite to the police officer who stopped you. I know that’s the last thing you want to do – you want to question his authority, ask why he pulled you over in the first place, get his badge number, talk to his superior, file a complaint…..just stop.
Remember, the officer may be having a long night and looking to cut you a break anyway, may be freaked out and nervous about somebody having a weapon, and yes, he may be a complete dick and is pulling you over just because he’s a power hungry bastard who likes to mess with people.
Do yourself a favor, though, and don’t give him any more reason to be a punk; instead, focus on making sure you:
1. DON’T HAVE ANY CONTRABAND IN PLAIN SIGHT. Whether that’s a roach in the ashtray, pipe on the dashboard, loose pot on your clothing or seats – all can lead to a further search of your car and possible arrest. If the police see something illegal in plain view, they don’t need a warrant to confiscate it, but more importantly it gives them the excuse to pull you out of the car and search further.
Next, have your…
2. LICENSE AND REGISTRATION READY. Have your hands where they can see them, and don’t argue with the cop.
One caveat – I always tell people to have their window rolled down all the way, but if you have ignored my advice and have been smoking in the car, you probably want to crack the window just enough to slide your information through and be able to have a conversation. This will minimize the chance he smells pot, but will obviously make him a tad more suspicious.
Also, this goes hand in hand with your…
3. RIGHT TO REMAIN SILENT and the right to not answer any questions without an attorney present. Once you hand over your license and registration, you can stay completely silent and not answer a single question, or inform the officer that you won’t answer any questions without an attorney present.
If you have been drinking or smoking, this may actually be the best chance you have of the officer not smelling any substance that may be on your breath, but beware, this will certainly make them suspicious and may lead to more hassle. A tough call to make in the heat of the moment, and a decision that will probably make your stop last longer whether or not you have done anything wrong or have something in the car you don’t want them to find.
The officer may try to convince you that you don’t have a right to remain silent or a right to an attorney unless you are under arrest, but that may be a trick to get you to talk.
Whether or not you choose to talk or remain silent…
4. NEVER AGREE TO LET THE POLICE SEARCH YOUR CAR. If the officer is asking you to search the car, it’s probably based on one of two reasons:
- They don’t have enough information to get a search warrant; or
- They don’t want to go through the hassle of getting the warrant.
Officers are trained to try and convince people into giving consent for searches. If they ask you to search your car, your answer should always be, “I have nothing to hide officer, but I do not give you consent to search my car” (or my person, my bag, my purse, my trunk, my glove compartment, etc.)
The officer may try to convince you that they will get a warrant or will search the car anyway, but don’t be fooled and stick to the script.
After they have taken a reasonable amount of time gathering and checking your basic information…
5. DETERMINE IF YOU ARE FREE TO LEAVE. Really, at any time during any interaction with the police, you can ask, “Officer, am I under arrest or am I free to leave?”
Again, they are allowed a reasonable amount of time for the stop, but if you feel like it has taken longer than it should and the officer says you are not under arrest tell them that you would like to leave.
If they say you are under arrest, either remain silent and refuse to give consent for a search OR tell the officer that you will not be answering any questions without an attorney.
Last, if you are arrested or if the officers search your car even when you haven’t given him consent…
6. DO NOT PHYSICALLY RESIST or become hostile with the officer. This goes back to being polite and not making the situation worse where you may be charged with resisting arrest or some other BS charge.
This is especially important if the police do violate some of the rights outlined above. The time to fix the issue is not on the side of the road while you argue that they are violating your rights, but in a court of law with an attorney by your side. Stay calm and continue to be polite while asserting your rights.
Our friends at NORML have a handy card they call the “Freedom Card” that covers much of what we talked about here and is available to download for free on their website.
You can print it out and simply hand it to the police when you are pulled over, without having to say a thing.
This is the link: http://norml.org/legal/item/freedom-card?category_id=742