Traffic stops are a common way that ordinary citizens find themselves interacting with law enforcement. In fact, national statistics reveal that there are more than 20 million traffic stops that take place each year in the United States. That’s more than 50,000 driver per day. With such a high frequency, it is important for drivers to know their rights in order to make sure they can exercise them fully during the stop.
The first thing people should understand about traffic stops is that police are only permitted to stop drivers under certain circumstances. Officers may not simply choose to arbitrarily pull cars over. This is because people have a constitutional protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, and stopping a driver on the street legally qualifies as a seizure.
This means that the officer needs to be able to point to “specific and articulable facts” that made them suspect that there was criminal conduct occurring. These facts include things like the driver’s speeding, broken taillights, or some sort of erratic driving. Making an issue of whether the stop was permissible during the stop is often unwise, as it may simply antagonize the officer, but the lack of reason for a stop can become important in court and is something a criminal defense lawyer may be able to use for a defense.
Know Your Rights
Once the stop occurs, there are two rights that people should stay aware of: the right to refuse to consent to a search, and the right to remain silent. The right to refuse consent is an important right to understand fully. This is because refusing to consent to a search does not necessarily stop the officer from searching the car.
Police officers are allowed to search cars without violating a person’s rights if they have “probable cause” to believe that they will find evidence of a crime, for example, drugs in the car. However, if the police rely on this rule in court, they must be able to prove they had probable cause, which gives a defense attorney the opportunity to attempt to exclude evidence from the search. If instead, the person consents to the search, then the state no longer needs to prove the existence of probable cause to use the evidence.
People should also be aware of their right to remain silent during a traffic stop. This right affords people the ability to refuse to answer most police questions during the stop, with the exception of providing a driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance. As with the issue of permissible stops above, it may not always be wise to exercise this right to the fullest extent. Simply refusing to answer mundane, non-incriminating questions can lead to more trouble with the officer.
Contact a Criminal Defense Law Firm