Know Your Rights During Traffic Stops

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Working on an article for another publication, I told the story of a woman who got herself in a heap of trouble during a traffic stop breaking a controversial and unconstitutional law. What state she was in and what “law” she broke doesn’t matter as much as that it’s something that can happen to anybody. With the proliferation of dumb and evil laws in both red and blue states that can trip good people up doing things that are perfectly legal in their home states, knowing what your rights are during a traffic stop and knowing how to keep yourself from getting tangled up in entrapment is a lesson applicable to all drivers, including EV drivers.

So, in this article, I’m going to do a quick review of two important constitutional rights that every driver should know about. For readers outside of the United States, this can still be informative, but you’ll have to review your own local laws. In many countries, similar rights are protected, but you’ll probably need to consult with a local lawyer to keep yourself out of trouble. In this article, I’ll be sharing information from lawyers in the United States that may not fully apply overseas.

The Right To Remain Silent

When you get pulled over by cops, they always walk up asking a bunch of questions.

“Do you know why I pulled you over?”
“Where are you coming from today?”
“Where are you headed?”
“Can I take a look in your vehicle real quick?”

What you might not know is that you have no obligation to answer any of these questions, and it is in fact a terrible idea to answer them. Even if you’re sure you’re completely innocent, if a police officer gets the wrong idea about what you’re doing or where you’ve been, you could still get into a bunch of unnecessary trouble. Or, worse, you could be breaking a law and not even know it!

Here’s a video from a law professor and a police officer that explains this in great detail. If you drive, bike, or even live and breathe in the United States, you owe it to yourself to watch the whole thing from beginning to end. It’s essential knowledge for anybody who doesn’t want to wear orange every day!

In short, modern U.S. law is complex. It is, in fact, so complex that even the government doesn’t know how many crimes there are! Worse, many laws are so impossibly vague that even good people who try to obey the law inadvertently technically commit several felonies every single day, leaving it up to police and prosecutors to decide whether to ruin your life over them. Even legal experts and politicians can’t always keep themselves out of trouble, and say things that cost them dearly.

But, you can avoid most of this by not talking to law enforcement officers. There’s no way talking to them can help you (hearsay), but an infinite number of ways that it can hurt you. A cop looking to meet a quota or a “performance standard” that’s supposedly not a quota knows about many of these pitfalls and you don’t. And, they know how to manipulate you with fake kindness and friendliness into incriminating yourself. So, your best defense is to keep your mouth shut!

But, thanks to some newer federal cases, you do have to inform police that you’re being silent and exercising that right. There are a few good ways to do this. Here’s one from an experienced “film the cops” kind of guy, where he simply tells them, “I don’t answer questions.”

But, if you want something from a bona fide lawyer, here’s some tips from a lawyer who specializes in marijuana possession and staying out of trouble with that. He has a 25-word “script” you can use to avoid problems.

His main things he recommends asking/doing are:

  • “Why did you pull me over?” (make the cop explain their probable cause for pulling you over)
  • “I’m not discussing my day.” (let them know that you won’t be answering their questions)
  • “Am I free to go, or am I being detained?” (make the cop say that you’re being detained so they can’t claim they didn’t detain you later, and often they’ll decide you’re not worth the trouble and let you go at this point)
  • If they say they’re detaining you, say “I invoke the Fifth.”
  • Now, SHUT THE F*** UP (actually stay quiet so you don’t say anything stupid) and only talk to your attorney.

Freedom From Unwarranted Searches & Seizures

Another thing that can get people in heaps of unintentional trouble is telling cops that they can search your vehicle. Like keeping silent, this one can get innocent people in all sorts of trouble. Why? Because you might actually be doing something illegal and not know it, or a crooked cop could be planning to plant incriminating evidence and “find” it in your vehicle, hoping to wrongfully use civil asset forfeiture laws against you.

The police may be good, upstanding public servants where you live, but this kind of crooked behavior happens all the time. Here’s a great collection of stories where it actually happened, so you’ll know it’s real.

If you’re following the advice from the last section and keeping your mouth shut, you’ll avoid most of these problems because you don’t tell them they’re allowed to search your vehicle. But, whatever you do, don’t say or write or sign anything waiving your Fourth Amendment rights (or similar rights outside of the United States). If you don’t waive those rights, lawyers have the opportunity to challenge any searches performed. If you assume you “have nothing to hide” and let them do a search hoping they’ll side with you, anything they find or “find” will be harder for your lawyer to deal with later.

But, without your permission, they probably won’t perform a search at all. Why? Because if they’re asking for your permission, they probably don’t have any information needed to perform a warrantless search or to get a warrant from a judge. So, don’t give them permission, ever.

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Never Be Afraid To Get A Lawyer

On the rare occasion I get pulled over (I haven’t been pulled over since 2019), I never waive my right to contest it, even if I know I was speeding. In many states, you have to choose right there on the side of the road whether to go to court or pay. Personally, I never go for the “easy” option of paying, because I have a right to due process.

It’s not uncommon at all for a police officer to change their mind and issue a warning instead of a ticket because they’re looking for easy pickings. Even when they issue a citation, when they find out that you’ve added a lawyer to your case, they often drop it because it’s just not worth the work they’d have to do to get that minor infraction past the lawyer. Or, they’ll drop some of the charges and offer a lower fine to get you to settle.

A lawyer is going to cost you something, and maybe as much as paying the ticket. But, keeping a clean driving record means cheaper insurance, so paying a ticket instead of disputing it means ongoing costs that will exceed the cost of the lawyer in most cases.

But, if you assert all of your rights instead of being easy prey, you can avoid a lot of problems.

Featured image by Ford.

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