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Pulled over by the police? Don't panic.

Pulled over by the police? Don't panic.

So, you're driving and in your rear view mirror you see the red lights flashing on top of the police cruiser. You catch your breath, your heart skips a beat and immediately your mind starts racing wondering what you have done wrong.  Regardless of why the officer is pulling you over, there are some simple things you should and should not do that will help you get through this stressful situation.


Do

Do acknowledge

The police officer behind you doesn’t know if or when you have seen his flashing lights.  The easiest and safest way to acknowledge him is to turn on the emergency flashers on your vehicle. Do not turn on your turn signal unless you mean to pull over immediately.

Do pull over only when it's safe

You are not required to immediately pull over when you see the police car with his/her lights on. You are required to pull over, but only when it is safe to do so and when you feel comfortable.  If you are on a highway it is recommended that you pull off the highway at the next off ramp and find a safe place to park.  One suggestion is a shopping plaza or mall where there are lots of other people around.  While it may feel embarrassing to have others see you pulled over by the police, it is always safer to stop where there are many people around.

When stopping, make sure you do so in a correct manner.  Park where it is legal to do so and make sure you park no more than 12 inches away from the curb. If you wish, you may leave your emergency flashers on unless the officer asks you to turn them off.

Do turn off the car

As soon as you have safely pulled over and put the vehicle in park, turn off the car engine.  Leave your seat belt on to avoid an unnecessary ticket.  Keep both hands in plain sight - preferably on the steering wheel in the 10 and 2 position.

Wait for the officer to come to you.  Under no circumstances should you leave your vehicle or approach the officer.  Even if the officer is sitting in his cruiser for what seems like a long time, absolutely stay in your vehicle.  He is probably running your plates and checking in with his dispatcher.

When the officer approaches the vehicle, watch him in your rearview and side mirrors.  When the officer reaches in your window, only then open your window. Keep your hands in plain sight. If you have passengers in the car, ask them to remain silent unless spoken too by the officer and have the passengers keep their hands also in plain sight.

Most of all, try to relax.  Take a deep breath and don’t panic or try not to look panicked.  If you are concerned about the interaction with the officer there is nothing stopping you from turning on your voice recording application on your phone as long as you put the phone down during the interaction and keep your hands on the wheel as the officer approaches your vehicle.

Do be polite and provide documentation

When addressing the officer, address him as Sir or her as Ma'am.  Be polite and courteous and maintain a conversational tone.  Be focused on what the officer says.  Maintain eye contact when listening and speaking.  Remain calm.   Do not be angry, confrontational or accusatory.  Don’t get flustered or panicked.

When asked for your driver’s license, registration and insurance, first inform the officer where they are and then get them.  If you don’t have any or some of the documentation, apologize to the officer and in a calm voice, tell him you don’t have the documentation.  If you know where the missing documentation is located then inform the officer where you think it is. 

The officer will most likely return to his cruiser to check your documentation. Close your window and remain in your vehicle and wait.

Do ask for a lawyer if arrested

If you are arrested for any reason, immediately ask for a lawyer.  Then keep your mouth shut.  Do not answer any questions.  Do not resist the officer.  Do not argue with the officer.  There is a process the arresting officer will follow.  Simply follow his/her directions but do not speak or answer any question ask by the officer.


Don't

Do not be afraid to ask why

When the officer first approaches the car, ask him/her why you were pulled over.  Be polite but persistent. If the officer claims you were speeding, you can ask how did he/she detect your speed.  If the officer used a speed detection device, ask to see the recorded speed.  If you have a recording application on your mobile phone, turn it on before the officer approaches the car and put it in the center console and then put your hand back on the steering wheel and wait for the officer.  The recording may not be admissible in court, but it will help your lawyer understand the situation.

Do not lie about anything

Absolutely do not lie to the officer. You are however under no legal obligation to answer any of the officer’s questions.  If you are uncomfortable with any of the questions be polite and inform the officer you do not wish to answer his questions.  It is perfectly legal.  The standard advice is not to answer any questions; however, if you do decide to answer the officer’s questions then stick to short direct answers - preferably responding “yes” or “no”.  Do not volunteer more information than asked.  Remember anything you say can be used against you in a court of law.

Do not take any field sobriety test

You must exit your vehicle if the officer asks you to do so.  If the officer suspects you were driving drunk, he may ask you to take a field sobriety test or breath test.  It is recommended that you politely refuse to take these tests.  This is perfectly legal.  It may result in you being arrested and taken to a hospital or detention facility to have a chemical blood test or breath test to see if your blood alcohol level (BAC) is above 0.08%.  If you are arrested ask for a lawyer immediately and don’t answer any questions.

If your BAC exceeds 0.08 percent you will be charged with a DUI or DWI. But don’t despair as you are not automatically guilty and there are several dos and don’ts you should act on quickly.

Do not argue the ticket

Once the Officer issues you a ticket, you are usually free to go.  Listen to what the officer says when he hands you the ticket.  He/she will ask you to sign it, but remember that signing a ticket is not an admission of guilt.

This is not the time to fight the ticket.  The officer will not change his mind once he has issued you the ticket, so don’t try to change it. Do not get angry or belligerent as it will only make things worse. You don’t have to look like you are happy getting the ticket, but don’t be rude either.

The ticket will contain the location where the offense took place, the officer’s badge number and name, the violation, the fine, and your information (name, address, driver’s license number). On the ticket will also be the number of days you have until you have to decide to fight it.  If you decide to contest, the ticket will describe the process and other details to do so..  If you decide to plead guilty, it will describe an online or in-person method to plead guilty and pay the fine if you wish to do so.

Every traffic ticket and situation is different.  Depending on the seriousness of the offense, you may want to seek the advice of a lawyer for the best course of action before you plead guilty and pay the fine.  It is very important you know how many points you will get as a result of the ticket and what, if any, impact this can have on your ability to drive and your car insurance rates.

Do not forget to signal when merging

You just received a ticket and your mad or your interaction with the officer has you rattled and upset.  Now is a poor time not pay attention to the road.  Often accidents occur as pulled over motorist re-enter traffic since they are not paying attention.  Sometimes the motorist will also conduct another infraction as they re-enter traffic and receive a second ticket.


Summary
Jumping cartoon

The best thing to do after being pulled over is to take a few moments to collect your thoughts, take a deep breath and prepare yourself to re-enter traffic.  If you are really upset, after your contact with the police, the best course of action is to safely exit the vehicle and take a short walk to calm the nerves.  In an extreme situation, call someone to come pick you up or drive you to where you need to go.  This is a much better alternative to another ticket or an accident.


More expert advice about Criminal Law

Photo Credits: State trooper by Flickr: ejharaldseid; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas - Fotolia.com

Mark MestelCriminal Defense Attorney

Mark D. Mestel has over 30 years of criminal defense experience. Since 1977, Mr. Mestel has personally handled hundreds of felony cases. Mark Mestel attended four years of college at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, graduating ...

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