Seeing flashing lights in your rear-view mirror can send your blood pressure climbing and put you at risk for a very bad day. There are things you can do that will make the traffic stop go faster and help you minimize the damage if you get pulled over by the police.
As soon as you know the police car in your rear-view mirror isn’t trying to pass you, you should start looking for a safe place to pull over. This may be on the side of the road or in a parking lot. You do not have to dive for the shoulder, though. If you are in a dark area or want to get off a major roadway, turn on your hazard lights to acknowledge the officer, slow down, and then move to a well-lit area where you feel safe. However, you should stop your vehicle as soon as it is safe to practically do so.
Once you are stopped, leave your hazard lights on, park the vehicle, and get ready to meet the officer coming to your car:
You have the right to record police activity that occurs in public. If you are concerned about police misconduct, or that a police report may not properly document what happened, you may want to set your phone to record the encounter. However, keep in mind that some officers will respond poorly to this. Doing this in a way the officer can see may cause the stop to go worse than it would otherwise.
Being pulled over by the police is stressful for everyone involved: driver, passengers, and the police officer. Traffic stops pose a threat to police. They are trained to deal with drivers who try to flee or fight back, so they are on the lookout for aggressive actions. They also are often aware of traffic around them and the risk that they will be struck. In 2018, 34 officers nationwide were killed in motor vehicle accidents and another 9 died as pedestrians struck by vehicles. All of this can add up to a lot of anxiety.
As the driver in a traffic stop, you can help diffuse that situation and keep things from escalating to an arrest (or worse) by simply remaining calm and polite. Obviously, you don’t want a ticket and don’t appreciate the delay in your day. However, becoming upset or arguing with the police officer will only make the stop take longer, and could result in additional charges for resisting arrest or obstructing a police officer. Remember, the best place to address issues with the stop or officer is in the courtroom not on the side of the road. As the cop approaches your vehicle, take a deep breath and commit to being calm no matter what.
If you are stopped by the police on the sidewalk, they do not have the right to see your ID, but once you are behind the wheel, that rule changes. Driving is a privilege in Georgia. The law says that part of that privilege includes producing your driver’s license when pulled over by the police. When the officer requests it, hand over your ID, vehicle registration, and proof of insurance. They will take it with them back to their vehicle. If you have to reach for any documents or open any container to pull them out, verbally describe what you are going to do before you do it. For example, say:
“I am reaching for my license. It is in my wallet in my back pocket.”
Along those same lines, if you are storing a handgun in your glove compartment, have a rifle in your trunk, or are carrying a gun on your person with a valid Georgia Weapon Carry License (WCL), be sure to say that to the officer before doing anything that would reveal the weapon. Otherwise, they may believe you are reaching for the weapon, rather than the paperwork behind it. For example:
“My registration is in the glove compartment. I have a handgun there too. Is it okay for me to take out my registration?”
So far, this article has had you say a lot of things to the police. However, once you have identified yourself, you should not answer any questions during a traffic stop. Most people know they have a right to remain silent during a police investigation. That same rule applies to traffic stops, but you have to say aloud that you are remaining silent. Police officers will often ask “Do you know why I pulled you over?” or “Have you had anything to drink tonight?” Anything you say in response could be used against you. Rather than answering their questions say:
“I choose to remain silent” or “I don't know why you decided to pull me over.”
As part of the traffic stop, the police officer may ask you to exit the vehicle. This is especially true if they believe you have been driving drunk or under the influence of drugs. You should follow any of their instructions even if you believe they are wrong. Refusing to do as an officer directs may result in additional charges and end up in an arrest. Remember to describe your actions before taking them, and to disclose your weapon if it will become visible when you get out of the vehicle. Say:
“I am opening the door to get out of the vehicle. You may see my handgun in the pocket on the door.”
If the police do believe you are drunk or on drugs, they may ask you to take a preliminary breath test (PBT), often called a Breathalyzer test, or various field sobriety tests. There are problems with many of these tests, and they can sometimes indicate you are intoxicated when you are not. You do have the right to refuse to take a PBT or a sobriety test. However, If the police officer has probable cause to believe you are drunk or drugged, they may arrest you long enough to get a court-ordered blood test. If you refuse chemical testing after you have been arrested and read a warning, your driver’s license may also be suspended. So before you say no to a Breathalyzer test, be sure you weigh the consequences.
While they have you stopped, the police may try to search you or your vehicle to see if they can stir up any additional charges. There are complex rules about when and how police may or may not search a person or a vehicle during a stop. When the police overstep these bounds (and they do), anything they find can be excluded from evidence, giving you a defense to any of the resulting charges. However, all those defenses go out the window if you consent (agree) to the search. Whether the officers ask you or not, say out loud, as often as you feel appropriate:
“I do not consent to this search.”
The police have the right to pull you over for a “brief” traffic stop. This stop can only last as long as reasonably necessary to finish their investigation. However, sometimes the police will continue to hold you or ask you questions about things unrelated to the stop -- including your immigration status -- after they have given you a ticket. Do sign the traffic citation when you receive it. Then politely ask:
“Am I free to leave?”
If the officer says no, ask:
“Am I under arrest?”
There are special rules for if, when, and how police can arrest you. One of those rules is they have to tell you when you are arrested and why. Asking this question will force the officer to decide if they have probable cause to believe a crime has been committed and then either arrest you or let you go.
Getting pulled over by the police is no fun for anyone. By remaining calm, complying with the police officer’s instructions, and saying only what is necessary, you can improve your chances of driving away quickly, and without facing an arrest.
Lance McCoy of The McCoy Law Firm, LLC, is a criminal and DUI defense attorney with 25 years of experience. From his family-owned law firm in Cartersville, Georgia, he represents defendants facing traffic offenses and DUI charges. If you have been pulled over by the police and ticketed, please contact Criminal & DUI Law of Georgia so we can begin working on your case right away.