Thursday, April 5, 2012

Know Your Rights: Traffic Stop

I'd like to preface this article by saying that police are not bad people.  I know the tone of a lot of my articles is that of the badgering police officer harassing the unassuming citizen, but this is far from the norm.  Police provide a vital service for our society, and do a fantastic job of keeping us safe.  I would never speak an ill word about the work police, especially Minnesota police, do on a day to day basis.  Whenever you're dealing with police, be polite, be attentive, and be respectful.  They've earned at least that from everyone.

Having said that, a lot of what officers are asked to do involves a certain level of prying into the private lives of people.  If a crime is being investigated and you "meet the description" or are in the wrong place at the wrong time, it is the job of police officers to do their due diligence and find out what you know.  If you ever find yourself in this situation, whether it's the result of being stopped on the street, greeted at your front door, or called in to the police station for questioning, it's important to know what you must do and what you may do.  I use those words because just because you aren't required to provide certain information doesn't mean you shouldn't.  In this article, I will go over what you are required to provide to police when asked and what is completely optional.  Over the next few articles, I'll touch on one of the four most common situations in which one may be questioned by a police officer.  We'll start with the most common.

The Traffic Stop

Let's start with when you're pulled over while driving.  There could be any number of reasons you were pulled over:  Speeding, running a red light, weaving, cutting someone off, or even something silly like a broken tail light.  The point is, unless you know how long the officer has been following you, you might have committed any number of infractions he could call you out on.  The key is not to help him out.  The officer is likely going to ask you something along the lines of "Do you know why I pulled you over?"  Your answer should be "No, I don't."  If you say "yes" and them give him the reason, that's all he needs to know to write that ticket with confidence.  Even if you think you are 100% sure you know why you've been pulled over, you could still be wrong.  Don't be that guy who gets pulled over for a flickering tail light who ends up driving away with a ticket for running a stop sign.  So one "don't" to remember if you get pulled over is don't give the officer reasons to write you tickets.  Another don't is don't go on the offensive.  The last thing an officer wants to hear is you questioning his motives.  He's probably got perfectly fine motives, and eventually he'll let you know what they are.  By asking "What did I do?" or "Is there a problem, officer?" you are making your first contact with the officer aggressive.  Questions like that might seem harmless enough, but the best thing to do is let the police officer lead the conversation.  When you are waiting for the officer to come to your vehicle, simply get your driver's license and insurance card out, roll your window down, and wait.

That brings us to your first required action -- giving the officer your license and proof insurance.  If you've been pulled over while operating a motor vehicle, state law requires you to present both of these things.  This is called the implied consent law.  If you have both a license and valid auto insurance but don't have them with you in the vehicle, you do have time to show them to the court before additional citations are issued.  In most cases, providing proof of license and proof of insurance for the date of the traffic stop before your first court date is sufficient.  If you have your license and insurance and just don't want to show the officer, then you're crazy.  Just show him.  If you've got warrants, outstanding tickets, or something of that ilk, they're going to find out, anyway.  Just cut to the chase and take your medicine.

Another thing that technically you don't have to do, but it's certainly in your best interests, is to exit the car if the officer asks you to.  Basically, you don't have to comply with his request, but if you choose not to, it will no longer be a request.  Make sure to close the door behind you, however, as leaving it open could lead to the officer using plain sight to see something you'd rather him not see.  

There are a number of things you don't have to allow the officer to do.  First and foremost, you have no obligation to agree to any search of your vehicle.  Even if you have nothing to hide, there is no reason to allow an officer to rifling through your personal property.  If he asks to search the interior of your vehicle, politely turn him down.  If he asks you to open your trunk, politely decline.  If he asks you to open your glove compartment, politely decline.  Sometimes, officers will phrase such requests as statements, saying something blunt like "Open your trunk, sir/ma'am."  Don't be fooled.  A police officer can not order his or her way onto or into your personal property.  If they would like to search your vehicle, they'll have to get a warrant.  If they tell you they have probable cause to search your car and forcibly enter your vehicle to do so, contact a Minnesota criminal defense attorney immediately.  The search taking place is likely illegal.  There are some certain circumstances where courts have allowed officers to search cars, but that is for another day.

Lastly, the best way to avoid saying or doing something dumb is to remove yourself from the situation as soon as possible.  In most traffic stops, the end is very apparent.  The officer will talk to you, get your information, write you a ticket/warning (or not if you're lucky) and tell you to be on your way.  In some circumstances, however, the nature of the stop is more ambiguous.  If the officer is asking you a lot of questions, asking to search your vehicle, or threatening to bring in back up if you don't adhere to his instructions, you need to determine what kind of trouble you're in.  The easiest way to do this is to ask the officer if you are being detained.  If the officer says that you are not being detained, politely ask if you are free to leave.  If the answer to this is "no," then disregard the officer's first answer.  You are being detained.  If this is the case, assert your right to speak with your Minnesota defense attorney immediately.  If the officer says that you are free to leave, simply get in your vehicle and slowly drive away.  If he says you are free to leave but continues to ask questions, keep asking if you are allowed to leave until he stops.  Never walk away while still being spoken to.  As always, if you have to have this exchange with an officer, be polite and courteous.

Being armed withe knowledge of your rights is very important, but can also be detrimental.  All too often, citizens will get "snippy" with officers in an effort to protect their rights.  Your first instinct when dealing with police should not be to get defensive and assume that they are trying to take advantage of you.  Police exist to help in our society.  Always assume that they are doing things the right way until they give you reason to believe that they are not.  By keeping these simple concepts in mind, however, you could avoid putting yourself in more trouble than you deserve the next time you're pulled over when driving.

As always, the views expressed in this blog are not intended to be legal advertising or legal advice.  The Minnesota Criminal Defense Blog is intended solely for entertainment purposes.  If you have been charged with traffic violations or believe that your rights have been infringed upon by an officer of the law, contact a Minnesota criminal defense lawyer directly in order to get the legal guidance you will need in order to obtain the best possible result in your situation.


  1. This is a great post and very informational. I do have a question in regards to this specific post. This is going to be a little complicated, only because it wasn't the normal traffic stop. My friend who lives in a duplex recently informed me that her neighbor downstairs was raided, apparently this was maybe the 4th time it was done. However she has only lived there for 10 month's and this was the first raid in that time. The neighbors have made it there job to report every little thing that happens at this address, including everything about my friend and her children. Now, since the raid, the police circle the house several times a day, the neighbors call and report every vehicle that shows up there, which includes mine from time to time. I happen to be dropping my friend off with her son, the first time the police drove by. Now, as I was backing out of the driveway to head home which is not even a mile, I noticed the police car drive by again and they slowed down and watched for me to pull out on the busier street. I immediately noticed them doing a u turn in the middle of the road and then I was being followed. It was about 6 block's when I was pulled over. Now, I was kind of agitated only because of the stuff and harassment my friend and her kids have been going through. After pulling over, the female officer that approached, I recognized and was acquainted with only because she had taken a report that I had made a year earlier on a completely separate matter. She asked me who was I was visiting in that neighborhood, what was the address and what was my friends name. She then asked me if I was aware of what has been going on in that house, which I said somewhat and assured her that my friend who lived upstairs from those people had nothing to do with that (they already know this though). I was attempting to find my insurance card, when she asked me if my x boyfriend was around there, considering he had an addiction and whatnot. I told her the addiction was completely different than what was assumed to be downstairs and that he didn't even know the people at that address. Then I told her, you guys should know where he's at considering we have an OFP and your department along with another agency came straight to my house and arrested him for violating that order and he's sitting in county jail. She then assured me I didn't need to find my ID and that I was okay to go. I was good she said. Now, I appreciate the safety stop or safety check, but in all reality, they were watching the house and were only focused on the issues that have been arising from the neighbor's, which since the raid have for the most part vacated. I do apologize for such a long comment/story, but I couldn't leave any details out. Did they have a right to stop me and ask me such thing's regarding my friend and or that address? That's what I'm curious about and I'm pretty sure that I will be pulled over again. This female officer has pulled followed me before and ran my plates, then stopped to talk to me after I parked and was getting my children out. Do I need to be concerned? Thanks so much for your post and answer.


  2. Basically, you don't have to comply with his request, but if you choose not to, it will no longer be a request.

    Could you please explain this further?

  3. Basically, you don't have to comply with his request, but if you choose not to, it will no longer be a request.

    Could you please explain this further?

  4. What do you mean, if you don't answer it will no longer be a request? They can force you to answer in Minnesota? What happened to constitutional rights. Should I be practicing my Nazi hail? Is this a police state? Excuse me but if this cop did to me what she did to the lady, I would be livid