You are driving along, minding your own business, when suddenly you see blue flashing lights in the rear-view mirror. Quickly you glance down at your speedometer. Uh oh. You are going 30 mph in a 25 mph zone. Your next actions are important.
1. If the car that is pulling you over is unmarked, you can continue at a safe speed to a well-lit area where other people are present. If it is a marked police car, pull well off the roadway and put your emergency flashers on.
2. Shut off your engine and keep both hands on the steering wheel. Your hands must always be in full view or you may find a handgun pointed at you.
3. The officer will invariably ask, “Do you know why I pulled you over?” There is only one answer you can give: “No I don’t. Please tell me.” The officer wants you to admit you were speeding, that you went through a stop sign, etc., because such admissions can later be used against you in court, should it come to that. Do not apologize for your driving for the same reason. So play dumb. Let him do all the talking.
4. When the officer asks for your driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance, move slowly and deliberately. If the registration is in the glove box, explain that to the officer and tell him you must take your hands off the steering wheel to get the items he wants. Never reach under the seat or you will find a handgun pointed at you.
5. In rare cases, the officer will order you out of the car. Always comply. Never argue. If you must reach down to release your seatbelt, tell the officer. In 2002, FBI agents in an unmarked car near Baltimore pulled over a car, mistakenly thinking the driver had been involved in a bank robbery. They ordered a 20-year-old man out of car, and when the man reached down to unbuckle his seat belt one of the agents shot him in the face. The man was innocent. The agent later said he “felt threatened.”
6. If you previously had been drinking, do not volunteer that fact. Never try to minimize your drinking by saying you just had “two beers.” That line is used so much by motorists that police officers laugh every time they hear it. If the officer orders you to take a breathalyzer test, comply. After the test, ask to see the readout on the machine.
7. If the officer asks if he can search your automobile, always say no, even if he threatens to get a dope-smelling dog to go over the car. If the officer does not have “probable cause” or your consent, he cannot lawfully conduct a search of your car.
8. Beware of a false “good cop” routine when it comes to car searches. A police officer on a major route such as I-95 (east coast) or I-5 (west coast) will say he is just letting you off with a warning. Then, as an afterthought, the officer will say “You don’t mind if I take a quick look through your vehicle, do you?” Your inclination is to cooperate with the officer, but again you must say no. You may not have a stash of marijuana, burglar tools or firearms on the vehicle, but something as insignificant as a thick wad of cash will get you in trouble. A few years ago a family was on I-95 en route to Disney World when they were stopped by police for a broken taillight. In a subsequent search of the vehicle, the police seized $4,000 in cash, alleging the money was probably intended for a dope transaction. The family protested that it was merely their vacation money, but the police kept it anyway. It took three months and a lawsuit for the family to get the money back.
Remember, the policeman is not “your friend,” regardless of what they told you in grade school.
Update: On April 21, the Supreme Court ruled that police need a warrant to search the vehicle of someone they have arrested if the person is locked up in a patrol cruiser and poses no safety threat to officers.