It may not feel like it when it’s happening, but you do have rights when you are in a traffic stop, and it is best to use them. Police officers will try any number of tactics to divert you away from your rights in order for them to operate in any way they wish. Don’t give them this power easily. Your rights have been defined through years of case law, and in some cases, directly from the Constitution of the United States. There are several things you can and should say or do when dealing with the police at a traffic stop.
The first and perhaps most important question to ask is fairly simple. You merely need to ask if you are free to go. Another way is to ask if you are being detained. The reason for this is easy enough to understand. If they have no reason to detain you, they can not legally do so. If you are told that you are not free to go, it could be because they suspect you of some crime, and they are going to attempt to coerce evidence or a confession from you. After you realize you aren’t free to go, and that they are looking for something, things get a bit more interesting.
One way police officers will attempt to gain evidence is through searches, which are especially common for traffic stops. It is crucial that you firmly state you do not consent to any searches. If you consent, they can do whatever they want to look through your vehicle in search of illegal contraband. If you do not consent, they can not search your vehicle unless they have just cause, which usually involves a K-9 unit signaling the presence of drugs. They may attempt to trick you into consenting with twisty phrases that force to answer in their favor, so be careful of your language when you speak.
Of course, you don’t have to speak. It is one of your fundamental rights to remain silent, and people don’t use it enough when encountering law enforcement. For instance, if you go through a traffic stop and they claim to smell marijuana, you should immediately either say nothing or inform them that you will be exercising your right to silence. If you offer an excuse for the smell, they may decide to search your vehicle based on your answer. Until that point, they still have no recourse to search your vehicle unless the drug dog signals on the smell. Of course, many officers illicit false signals from the dogs when they don’t hit by themselves, which is essentially a free pass to search your vehicle. It is best to try to avoid the encounter escalating to that point in the first place.
The last magic phrase to say to police is one that you hope you never have to utter, but it is the last defense. Ask for a lawyer. It is your right to have an attorney present during questioning, or once you’ve been detained. Do not speak again until you speak with the lawyer. Anything you say can and will be used against you.
It is hard to remember exactly how to react in a traffic stop, since there are a lot of factors in the moment that make it difficult. Adrenaline and fear play a large part, but you need to look past those things in order to deal with the situation properly. A misstep could cost you your freedom, so remember the basic things to say and do. Ask if you can go, refuse searches, remain silent, and request a lawyer.