What to Do If You’re Stopped for a DUI or Other Traffic Offense

Your rights and other things to be aware of during a traffic stop.

By , Attorney

Any time you get pulled over by police, it can be anxiety-provoking. Here are some basic things to be mindful of—including your legal rights—if you get stopped for a DUI or traffic violation.

Pulling Over

When you notice a cop car behind you with lights flashing, it's of course time pull over. Generally, you'll want to do so promptly once you see a safe place to stop. Keep in mind that the officer is typically going to approach your driver's side window. So, you should make an effort to pull over as far to the right as possible. When there's inadequate space on the driver's side, officers will sometimes walk over to the passenger side.

Turn Off and Stay in Your Car

Unless you're instructed to do otherwise by police, you'll generally want to turn off your engine and remain in your vehicle after coming to a stop. Roll down your window so you can communicate with the officer and provide any documents he or she might request to see.

Police are always wary about safety. So, once you roll down your window, it wouldn't hurt to leave your hands on the steering wheel where they're visible to the officer. Also, avoiding sudden movements is a good idea.

Although you might want to get all your documents ready, it's generally best to wait until the officer actually requests to see them. To an officer approaching from behind, there's no way to differentiate whether a person inside a vehicle is reaching for vehicle registration or trying to grab a weapon or hide some type of paraphernalia.

Keeping Your Cool

Whether or not you believe you did something wrong, being civil and cooperative with the officer during a traffic stop will typically be in your best interest. Although police officers are responsible for enforcing the law, they have some discretion in doing so. For instance, speeding ticket fines are normally based on the driver's speed. In order to lower the fine, an officer might write a slower speed on the ticket than the driver was actually going. But drivers who are hostile and rude to police aren't likely to receive any favors.

Your Legal Rights During a Traffic Stop

Although courtesy and cooperation can be to your benefit, you also want to be clear on what your rights are during a traffic stop. Volunteering too much information or being overly cooperative can sometimes get you into trouble.

Providing Documents Such as License and Registration

Drivers are normally required to provide certain documents at the request of an officer during a traffic stop. Generally, these documents include license, vehicle registration, and proof of insurance. If you don't have or refuse to provide any of these items, there's a good chance you're going to get a ticket.

In the context of DUI checkpoints, some attorneys have suggested that drivers can meet their obligation to provide these documents to police by placing them in a Ziploc bag and rolling it up in the window so it hangs outside. These attorneys suggest this method because it allows drivers to avoid having to roll down their window.

Right to Remain Silent

Drivers always have the right to remain silent when dealing with police. Although exercising this right can lead to an awkward moment, keeping quiet is typically advisable if the words out of your mouth could be considered an admission of illegal activity. Drivers who don't want to talk can just tell the officer they're invoking the right to remain silent.

Exiting Your Vehicle at an Officer's Request

An officer who stops you for a traffic violation has the right to insist that you and your passengers get out of your car. So, if an officer asks you to do so, you don't have the right to refuse.

Field Sobriety Tests and Drug and Alcohol Testing

Generally, drivers aren't required to participate in field sobriety tests (FSTs), so there's no penalty for choosing not to do so. The same goes for prearrest alcohol and drug tests. During traffic stops—but prior to making a DUI arrest—officers often ask drivers if they're willing to take a breathalyzer test. However, at this prearrest point in the process, drivers generally have the right to refuse.

But once an officer arrests a motorist for driving under the influence, implied consent laws kick in. The implied consent laws of every state require drivers who are lawfully arrested for driving under influence to comply with an officer's request for chemical testing. Normally, the officer will request a breath or blood test. A driver's unlawful refusal can lead to various consequences, including license suspension.

Vehicle Searches

The legality of vehicle searches is a big topic. But knowing a few basics can help during a traffic stop. Generally, to lawfully search a vehicle, police need a reasonable basis for believing there's contraband inside. A traffic violation isn't normally enough. However, driver consent is one major exception to this rule. In other words, police aren't allowed to search your vehicle without justification unless you give them permission. So, if police ask if they can search your car, and don't want them to, you can say "no."

Hiring an Attorney and Enforcing Your Legal Rights

Although drivers have the legal rights discussed above, things don't always go by the book. Sometimes police simply don't follow the rules. However, with a few possible exceptions (such as exercising the right to remain silent and not consenting to a vehicle search), drivers are well-advised to follow all police instructions and requests during a traffic stop. If police do overstep their authority during a traffic stop, your attorney will likely have a legal argument to fight your case in court.

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