What Should You Do if an Officer Pulls You Over?
When you are pulled over, you have certain rights and protections based on the constitution. This prevents officers from overstepping, and merely using a stop as an opportunity to search for a crime, as opposed to stopping based on the observation that a crime has already occurred. In this article we discuss each step of a traffic stop and what rights you have during that step.
The Initial Stop
A law enforcement officer cannot pull you over without probable cause. Probable cause is the officer’s reason for believing you were committing a traffic violation or breaking the law in some other manner. For example, the officer can’t pull you over simply because they think you look like someone who would break the law. However, if the officer sees you swerving in and out of the lane, it is justifiable to think you may be intoxicated and they can legally pull you over.
Typically, the officer will ask if you know why they pulled you over. Sometimes it is very clear, such as when you know you were speeding. Other times, you may genuinely not know what the traffic violation was; in those instances, it is perfectly acceptable to admit your confusion. An officer should then tell you their reason, which is their statement of probable cause.
During this initial interaction, the officer will typically ask for your license and registration. They will run your information back at their vehicle, often checking to ensure you do not have any warrants out for your arrest.
With Oklahoma’s constitutional carry law, people commonly have guns in their vehicles. While this is completely legal, it can make traffic stops a bit more complicated and scary. When you are pulled over, it is important that you immediately disclose the presence of your weapon to the officer and let them know where that weapon is. This ensures both the officer’s safety and your own.
If you do not tell the officer about the presence of your gun, but they happen to see it and think you are reaching for that gun, they will interpret your action as a threat to their life. The situation will quickly escalate and could lead to serious injuries for one or both parties.
One of the best things you can do when pulled over is to place both hands on your steering wheel. When the officer approaches the vehicle, you should immediately disclose that you have a gun in the vehicle and its location. This may change the way the officer proceeds with the traffic stop. For example, they may ask you to step out of the vehicle and come with them to their vehicle for the duration of the stop. However, this disclosure will keep both parties safe, and the officer will appreciate your forthrightness.
If an officer suspects that you are driving under the influence, they talk to you and try to gauge if your speech is slurred or if you smell of alcohol. During this time, we recommend you say as little as possible. You want to comply and answer their questions honestly, but don’t get overly chatty. The old adage of “anything you say can and will be held against you” is absolutely true.
Sometimes, an officer will have you come back to their patrol vehicle while they run your license and registration. You must comply, but keep in mind that they are often doing this to get you into close proximity so they can determine if you have the scent of alcohol on your breath.
Standardized Field Sobriety Testing
If the officer believes you are intoxicated, they will often ask you to perform Standardized Field Sobriety Testing (SFST) for them. This is a series of physical tests designed to assess your level of intoxication. It includes walking in a straight line and balancing on one foot. Many people believe you have to take SFST, but that is incorrect; you have the right to refuse these tests.
As we previously mentioned, anything you say can and will be used against you. SFST will be used against you, and whether you pass or fail is completely dependent on the officer’s judgment. On the other hand, if you refuse SFST, you are more likely to be arrested. It is impossible to give a blanket recommendation on whether you should take the SFST. The best thing to do is educate yourself on how they work, and make a determination in the moment about whether you should participate.
The State’s Test
After the SFST, the officer will most likely offer you the State’s test. This is either done with a breathalyzer or a blood test. Just like with the SFST, you have the right to refuse the State’s test. The officer will remind you about this right prior to administering the test. If you refuse, most officers will have you sign a refusal form, which explains your rights and the fact that your refusal can be used as evidence of intoxication in the trial.
Typically, you are not given a choice between the breathalyzer and blood test. If you are offered the breathalyzer, you can always request to take the blood test instead and the officer will often accommodate you. Determining whether you should take the breathalyzer or blood test can be difficult, and really depends on your surrounding circumstances.
A blood test will show both your blood alcohol content (BAC), as well as any illegal or legal drugs in your system. Conversely, a breathalyzer will only show your BAC. This means if you are under a combined influence of drugs and alcohol, only the alcohol portion will appear in a breathalyzer result.
There are certain instances where an officer will be able to search your vehicle without your permission and without a warrant. However, the Constitution protects you from illegal searches and seizures. Officers often search vehicles because the driver gives them permission to do so. Allowing an officer to search your vehicle is almost never beneficial, and will typically result in additional charges.
There are very few cases where an officer searches your vehicle and doesn’t find ANYTHING helpful, and you would be surprised what can be used at trial to prove your guilt. Even something as simple as an empty insulated mug could be portrayed as once containing an alcoholic beverage, and might sway a judge to believe you were driving under the influence.
Getting arrested can be scary, especially if you believe you did nothing wrong. Your instinct may be to argue with the officer and explain your position, but the best place to fight a criminal charge is in the courtroom, rather than on the street. If you are arrested, simply comply and quickly exercise your right to counsel. Allow your attorney to fight your charges for you, rather than attempting to fight them yourself.
The Bottom Line
Anytime you see flashing lights in your rear view mirror, you begin to panic a little, and that is completely normal. The best way to prepare for a traffic stop is to educate yourself on your rights, exercise those rights when necessary, and stay calm to prevent the situation from escalating.
If you believe you were charged with a crime you didn’t commit, let an attorney fight the charge in the courtroom, rather than arguing when the officer pulls you over. If you received charges after a traffic stop, give us a call for a free consultation on your case.