Four Tips for a Police Encounter


What to Do if You are Stopped by Police

By: R. Scot Feeman, Esquire

March 13, 2014

(1) When you first see the Police cruiser:

If you see a police car is following you with its siren blaring and emergency lights flashing, pull your car over to the right safely and quickly. Use your turn signal to indicate any lane changes from left to right slowing down while making the required turning movement. Pull over as far to the right as possible so that, when the officer comes up to your widow, he or she could not be hit by vehicles approaching you in the right lane during the traffic stop.

By stopping as soon as you can, you’ll have a better chance of understanding exactly where the officer says you committed a violation. I strongly suggest that you return to that area later to confirm what the officer was telling you about how he or she judged your speed, saw your turn, or witnessed any other violation.  Also take pictures of the area in question with your phone or camera as close to the time of day as the incident occurred.

(2) When you stop your vehicle on the side of the roadway:

When you have pulled your vehicle over to a safe spot, you need to be respectful to the officer.  Remember a little bit of kindness can go a long way in helping you manage this interaction.

Put your driver’s side window down all the way. You may also want to turn off the engine, place your hands on the steering wheel, and, if it’s dark, turn on your interior light. This will help to put the officer at rest and make your interaction with him or her as pleasant as possible.  Do not start looking for you license and registration.  Wait until the officer asks you for them.  For all the officer knows, if you start moving around the cabin of your vehicle before he or she has reached your car, you could be reaching for a gun.

(3) Avoid giving the Officer an excuse to search:

Generally speaking in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, a police officer is normally not allowed to search your vehicle.  However, there are several exceptions to this.

If the officer has a reasonable suspicion you are armed, he or she can ask you to step out of the vehicle and frisk you (pat you down). Similarly, if the officer reasonably suspects that you are involved in criminal activity he or she can also perform a pat down, and if police officers have probable cause — a reasonable basis or justification to believe that you or your passengers are involved in criminal activity — they can search your car and objects belonging to passengers.

Even if the officer doesn’t have reasonable suspicion or probable cause, once you are stopped, a police officer may seize any illegal objects in your car that are in “plain view.” Once they see the object, such as open beer or wine bottles or drug paraphernalia, they can open the car door to reach in and get it. After that, they may come across other objects that are in plain view and shouldn’t be in your car, and they can seize those items as well.

Lastly, your car may also be searched if you or any occupant is arrested. Also, if you’re arrested and your car is towed, the police may make an “inventory search” afterward, even if they have no reason to suspect there is anything illegal inside.

(4) When you interact with the Officer:

Many people stopped by an officer are naturally nervous and make the mistake of saying the wrong thing to him or her, and a case can be won or lost depending on what you say to the officer.  So relax as much as possible and follow the suggestions below.

Don’t speak first.  Let the officer control the sequence of the interaction.  It goes without question that you should NOT be defensive or hostile (i.e. “What’s the problem?” or “Your kidding me”). Let the officer start talking, and respond ONLY to the question that is asked of you. For the most part the interaction will begin with the officer asking to see your license and vehicle registration.  Do exactly that.  Do not start interrogating the officer as to why you were stopped or the nature of the alleged criminal activity. Simply say “Yes officer” and retrieve the requested documents.

The officer might start by asking you the sort of question whose lack of a definite answer would imply guilt, like, “Do you know why I stopped you?” Or, he or she might ask, “Do you know how fast you were going?” Your answers, if any, should be non-committal and brief, like a simple “No” to the first question or a very confident, “Yes, I do,” to the second. If the officer then tells you how fast he or she thinks you were going or what he or she thinks you did, don’t argue. Give a noncommittal answer, like, “I see,” or no answer at all. Silence is not an admission of guilt and cannot be used against you in court.

Remember to let the officer lead the interaction and only respond to the question that is asked of you by the officer.  It is important to keep in mind that you do not have to provide any information that is not requested of you or does not directly relate to the reason of the traffic stop.  The only question you should ask is at the end of the interaction and that is, “am I free to go”.  When the officer says, “yes” respond with, “thank you” (even if you really don’t want to), and if you still have any question call your attorney as soon as possible.

With all this in mind you should be able to successfully manage your encounter with the police officer, and hopefully just drive away with a warning.

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