What Should I Do During a Traffic Stop?

I'm often asked what someone should do during a traffic stop.  If you're pulled over in North Carolina for any traffic offense here is my general list of Do's and Don'ts.

  1. Always be "polite and cooperative."  Police officers have a ton of discretion and can make your life totally miserable if you give them attitude.  They have egos just like anyone else and if your behavior is offensive they can use their discretion to follow the letter of the law and add some extra charges.  If you're later in court and the oficer says you were not "polite and cooperative" there are many judges who will use their discretion to give you stiffer penalties.  Be respectful at all times.  Being a police officer is a tough and thankless job and they truly deserve your respect for the sacrifices they make to keep everyone safe.  It really just doesn't pay to be a jerk.
  2. Now when I say "cooperative" I do not mean that you should give up your Constitutional rights.  You are only required to give your name, driver's license and vehicle registration.  If the Officer orders you out of the car you should comply.  You should be cooperative with all orders but that does not mean you need to answer other qestions.  All of the officer's questions are designed to trip you up and make you admit to something that will improve the officer's case against you or to give him probable cause to arrest you or to search your vehicle.  I advise people to avoid giving direct answers to these questions (i.e. Do you know why I pulled you over? Do you know how fast you were going?  Have you had anything to drink tonight?).  They're asking you these questions to make you admit guilt or to give the officer probable cause to later arrest you.  Generally I find it's best not to say anything.  Just remember to be very respectful when you do not directly answer the officer's questions.  You can ask if you're under arrest and you have every right to politely tell the officer that you need to move along and do not have time to answer questions.  There's really no one size fits all answer for what to tell an officer.  Just generally be aware that anything you say will likely be used against you later on if you are given a ticket or arrested.
  3. Keep your registration current and check your lights ahead of time.  Driving when your vehicle is not regsitered is surprising a moving violation.  If you do not have your registration it is an offense where you should not pay your ticket and you should hire an attorney to get the ticket dismissed upon proof of current registration.  Hit this link for more about vehicle registration offenses.
  4. Stay in your car.  Do not get out of the vehicle.  Keep your hands visible on the steering wheel at all times.  While it is scary for you to get pulled over it is also very scary for a police officer to pull you over.  In their mind every car they pull over could be an armed dangerous criminal with an arrest warrant.  Every year police officers are shot and killed during routine traffic stops by convicted felons.  Make their job easier and less stressful by keeping your hands visible on the steering wheel and by not leaving your car.
  5. Have your license, registration and proof of insurance together and ready as soon as the officer gets to your vehicle.  Your registration and insurance should always be together, current and easily accesible from your seat.  Plan ahead whenever you drive and make sure those documents are ready at all times.
  6. Don't ask "What's the problem officer?"  The police officer will tell you.  Again it's best to say as little as possible (if not anything at all).  The more you talk the deeper you'll dig yourself in a hole.  Also avoid giving the officer advice about the law.  It's one of the bigger pet peeves for police officers to be told about the law by someone they're about to give aticket to.  Nothing good will come other than pissing off the officer.  Less is more when it comes to speaking during a traffic stop.
  7. Generally avoid giving "consent" to search your vehicle.  The police will look inside your car.  Don't have anything visible that could get the officer's attention.  If you have something embarassing in the car or something you don't want the officer to see you have every right in the world to avoid giving "consent" for a search.  Once you give "consent" for a search then you have no legal arguments down the road to throw out an unconstitutional search of your vehicle.  Usually if an officer is asking for your consent to search your vehicle they're trying to get a look at something that they cannot do without violating your constitutional rights.  Of course every situation is unique but generally there's not a lot of good that can come from giving up your rights by consenting to a search.

If you've received a traffic ticket the Law Offices of Wiley Nickel can help.  We serve Wake County, Durham County, Orange County and Chatham County in North Carolina.  Our office is in Cary, NC and is conveniently located in the middle of the research triangle.  We offer free consultations. 

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Wiley Nickel

Wiley Nickel lives and works in Cary, North Carolina. In 1998, he graduated from Tulane University with a major in Political Science and a minor in History. After college Wiley went to work for Al Gore and travelled with the Vice President as part of his national advance staff. Following the Gore campaign he earned his law degree from the Pepperdine University School of Law in 2005. While in law school Wiley worked as a law clerk in the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office where he gained valuable criminal trial experience before taking and passing the California bar exam. His first job out of law school was for the Merced County District Attorney’s Office where he worked as a Deputy District Attorney with a focus on prosecuting DWI offenders. Wiley later joined the Law Offices of Joseph Uremovic where he focused on civil litigation and family law. When the opportunity came to join the Obama campaign in 2008 Wiley jumped at the chance. He spent three years travelling with President Obama as a member of his national advance team. In 2011 Wiley left his work for the White House to return to the practice of law. Wiley devotes the majority of his practice to the areas of criminal law, family law, traffic tickets and DMV issues. The Law Offices of Wiley Nickel was started with the goal of providing the best representation possible for all of his clients. Experienced, Compassionate, Aggressive Criminal Defense While defense attorney Wiley Nickel works as the primary attorney for all of his cases, he does have an associate attorney, a team of investigators, forensic consultants, and support staff to call on to help achieve the best possible result in every case. He limits his case load so that he can focus on providing the best possible legal defense to all of his clients. Every case is a top priority and the goal is to have your case dismissed with a focus on being able to expunge your charges at the end of the process. When he is not working, Wiley is an avid family man, distance runner and golfer. He loves North Carolina college sports and is hoping this is the year for Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers. Wiley is licensed to practice law in North Carolina and California.