If the police pull you over on an OKC metro area street or highway, what are your legal rights? What should you do — and not do? Here is your attorney’s step-by-step guide to handling a traffic stop.
- You see a police vehicle behind you. Don’t panic. The police officer may not be getting ready to stop you; he/she may not be paying any attention to you at all. Stay calm. You are not obligated to slow down, pull over, or stop until the officer flips on the flashing lights.
- You see those dreaded flashing lights. Don’t panic. Even when you see lights in your rearview mirror, the officer may not be pulling you over. He/she may be getting ready to pass you to answer an emergency call. When the lights start flashing, move over to the right lane. Use your signal to make a lane change, as the OKC traffic ordinance requires. If the officer does not pass when given the opportunity, pull onto the shoulder or into a nearby parking lot and stop your vehicle. Take your time finding a safe place to stop. If no safe place is available, reduce your speed and put on your hazard (emergency) lights. That tells the officer you are trying to pull over. Then, wait for a safe place to stop.
- Create a non-confrontational environment. Don’t panic. Two primary emotions that drive human behavior are anger and fear. Many of the worst things that happen to us are caused by anger, fear, or both. When you see those flashing lights, your heart may start pounding, or your blood may start boiling, but don’t let yourself get upset. Stay calm and in control of your emotions. It may help to put yourself in the officer’s place. Consider the fear he/she may be feeling. The FBI says traffic stops are one of the top three circumstances in which officers are killed in the line of duty. In a traffic stop, the officer is hyper-alerted for signs of confrontation or violence. Your No. 1 goal is to communicate that you are not threatening the officer’s safety.
- Turn off your engine. That assures the officer you won’t suddenly hit the gas and flee the scene.
- Turn off your music. It only increases the tension to force the officer to shout over loud music.
- Roll down your window.
- If it is night, turn on your interior light. Let the officer see that there are no threats inside the car.
- Place your hands on the steering wheel and keep them in plain view.
Put the officer at ease by being calm and respectful. Don’t get out of the car unless the officer instructs you to.
- The officer turns on the spotlight. Don’t panic. I get it. That makes you feel like a criminal. The officer wants to determine how many passengers are in your car and where they are seated. Just remain calm and let the officer take in the scene.
- Don’t make any sudden moves. Don’t panic. Did I mention that already? When the officer approaches your driver’s window, he/she does not want to find you fishing around for something in your glove box. Don’t reach for your insurance papers until the officer asks you. Keep your hands in plain view at all times.
- Let the officer do the talking. Do not launch into a nervous monologue when the officer approaches your window. There is little you can say to improve the situation, but a lot you can say to make things worse. Let the officer speak first and let the officer do most of the talking. You are under no legal obligation to answer the officer’s questions. You may remain quiet or respectfully say, “I would rather not answer any questions.”
- The officer asks for your driver’s license and proof of insurance. Oklahoma law requires that you have a valid driver’s license and insurance verification form. Keep your glove box organized so you can find your insurance form quickly. Ensure you have an up-to-date insurance form, and discard the outdated ones. You are not required to carry your vehicle registration. Say so if the officer asks for that and you do not have it. If the officer issues you a citation, he/she will ask you to sign it. Signing confirms that you received the citation; it is not an admission of guilt.
- “May I search your vehicle?” A police officer must have probable cause — a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing — to insist on searching your vehicle. If the officer sees you hiding something or throwing something out the window, that is probable cause for a search. If the officer asks, “Do you know why I stopped you?” don’t incriminate yourself by admitting wrongdoing. Just answer “no” or “I don’t know.” The officer may interpret your admission of wrongdoing as sufficient cause to do a search. The officer will eventually tell you the reason for the stop. Don’t get into an argument. Save that for municipal court. If you turn a stop into a confrontation, you may give the officer probable cause to search your vehicle. You’ll get to tell your side of the story in court. Without probable cause, the officer may only search your car or truck if you permit it. If the officer asks for permission, you are not obligated to grant it. Refusing a search does not incriminate you.