Understanding Your Rights During Traffic Stops


The news seems to be filled with stories involving traffic stops gone awry. From Samuel Dubose in Ohio to Sandra Bland in Texas, the stories provoke many emotions. The stories, especially that of Ms. Bland, have left many people wondering what their rights are during traffic stops and when you can refuse an officer’s request. Laws from state to state may vary slightly, but the laws surrounding traffic stops are largely the same nationwide. So what are your rights at a traffic stop?

An officer may pull you over any time he has probable cause to believe you have committed a traffic violation. For example, an officer may pull you over for failing to signal before changing lanes or not stopping at a stop sign. After pulling you over, an officer will ask for license and registration. You must comply with this demand and provide the officer with your license and registration. Police recommend that for the safety of everyone involved you keep your hands on the steering wheel and refrain from making any sudden movements. When retrieving your license and registration, let the officer know you keep it in your glove box or may need to retrieve your wallet from your purse.

You have the right to remain silent even during a traffic stop. If the officer asks you questions like “do you know why I pulled you over” or “where are you heading,” you do not have to respond or assert your right to remain silent. This right extends to passengers in your car as well.  If a police officer feels unsafe at any time during the traffic stop, he may ask you to step out of your vehicle. You DO have to exit the vehicle if a police officer asks you step out, but you do not have to consent to any search of your vehicle or person at that point.  The Constitution requires a traffic stop to last only as long as it takes to investigate the violation for which the officer pulled you over. If you were pulled over for failing to signal before changing lanes, the traffic stop should only entail running your license and registration and issuing a ticket. The length of your traffic stop will be shorter if you are courteous and comply, but it will also be shorter if you know and assert your rights!

The advent of smart phones have proliferated almost every aspect of our lives and police interactions are no exception. During a traffic stop, you or a passenger are allowed to record the entire interaction. You do not need to comply with any request to turn over your phone or to stop filming. However, there is an exception to the general rule. If your recording impedes the officers ability to perform the task at hand, you must stop filming when asked to do so. Again, it is always a good idea to be courteous but forceful when declining an officer’s request to stop filming or handing over your phone. Should an officer request you stop filming you might try saying, “I have a right to film a police interaction as long as I am not legitimately interfering with a police investigation.” It shows you know your rights and will assert them in a respectful manner that does not endanger the officer or your safety.

A photojournalist who has been arrested numerous times for recording police investigations and an attorney both gave the same advice to those who find themselves frustrated at a traffic stop, comply now and contest later. Refusing to comply with an officer’s request, even when it is entirely within your rights, can escalate an already tense situation. What started out as a routine traffic stop can lead to an arrest and additional charges. You may want to ask yourself “is this worth being arrested over?” Keep in mind, after any police encounter a person is free to go to the police station and file a complaint alleging a wide range of perceived police misconduct. These complaints are investigated! After filing a complaint, you may call to inquire about the status of the investigation and whether a decision has been reached.





If you need a lawyer for a State or Federal criminal case, call Attorney W. Joseph Edwards (614-309-0243) who has over 25 years experience representing clients in these legal matters.


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