We previously discussed what to do during an arrest. During that discussion, we only talked about how to handle police interactions when you are on foot. But modern Americans encounter the police in other scenarios. One of the most common is the dreaded traffic stop. Let’s talk a bit about how to handle those.

As always, this post is not legal advice. If you feel you need legal advice, feel free to call or email us.

We’ll talk a bit about drunk driving in a later post, so for now we’re going to stick to the basics. Remember that in each of these situations we are trying to ensure you are as safe as possible and to help you exercise your constitutional rights.

While you are generally free to travel in your vehicle, officers may stop you if they have reasonable suspicion of a violation of the law. The underlying violation may stem from a traffic violation, a DUI, or any other crime. Often, officers will make what are known as “pretext stops,” stopping drivers for small violations because they have a hunch a more serious crime has occurred. This is constitutional.[1]

If you are stopped, come to a complete stop in a safe area, turn off your engine, turn on your dome light, roll down your driver and passenger windows an inch or two (assuming you have automatic windows, roll down just the driver if you don’t and you are alone), and put your hands on your wheel at 10 and 2 o’clock. Keep your hands there until the officer approaches your window. Now is not the time to start rummaging through your glovebox[2] looking for your insurance cards. Remember that officers are very wary during these stops as they don’t yet know who you are and are out in the open while you have cover and are obscured by your car windows and the darkness of the vehicle. Stay calm, cool, and collected.

When the officer gets to your window, he’ll probably ask you something like, “Do you know why I pulled you over?” “Do you know how fast you were going?” or “Did you see that red light?” All of these questions are designed to get you to admit guilt to a traffic violation. Generally, the best way to respond is to answer with, “No, sir.” You do have the option here to cooperate and say that you were going a bit fast or that you missed a stop sign, but this eliminates any possibility of challenging the ticket if the officer does issue one. As always, never lie to the police. “No, sir,” is not a lie as you may have every idea as to why he pulled you over but you may not be sure. Read the situation and use your best judgment, but the default stance should be to not admit to a crime.

If you feel that telling the officer that you do not know why they pulled you over is a lie, you do have the option of just immediately invoking your right against self-incrimination. As a practical matter, this might cause the officer to be more aggressive with the stop. No matter what option you decide to go with, understand why you are picking that option and plan ahead.

The officer will almost certainly ask for your license, registration, and insurance. You are required to provide that information, so when he does, let him know that you need to reach into your pocket for your license and into your glovebox for your other information and ask if that is okay. Calmly collect the documents and hand them through the window.

Just like the driver, passengers are also seized when a vehicle is pulled over.[3] For their safety, officers may order you and your passengers out of the vehicle for a reasonable amount of time and conduct a pat down.[4] They may also separate the occupants and question them individually (this is usually done if they suspect they will be or are being lied to). Everyone in the car should invoke their right to remain silent and ask for an attorney unless they plan on cooperating. See our previous post regarding arrests for a discussion about deciding whether or not you should speak, but generally, you should not. The officer may bluster and complain, but again there is no reason you should do their jobs for them.

Officers may be able to conduct a quick safety search of the vehicle once they have ordered the passengers out if there are “specific and articulable facts which, taken together with the rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant” that the suspect is dangerous and the suspect may gain immediate control of weapons.[5]

Officers may conduct a more thorough search of your vehicle if they have probable cause to do so or if you consent. Just like with a pedestrian stop, you need to be very clear that you do not consent to a search if they start to poke around the vehicle. Again, you should not consent to a search to preserve your constitutional rights and to keep “bad apples” from potentially planting evidence in your vehicle. If they really want to search your vehicle, they will need to produce a warrant or impound the vehicle and conduct an inventory search (especially likely in the case of a DUI).

They might also conduct a search of the vehicle incident to arrest if it is reasonable to believe that arrestee might access the vehicle at the time of search or that the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of the arrest.[6]


Special note: Have you ever wondered why you’ve never seen DUI checkpoints in Idaho? It’s because they’re unconstitutional in this state. In State v. Henderson,[7] the Idaho Supreme Court held that “[i]n light of the individual’s right of freedom from arbitrary governmental intrusion, and the questionable efficacy of roadblocks, we conclude that such roadblocks cannot withstand constitutional scrutiny.”


[1] Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806 (1996).

[2] Also known as “jockey box,” “glovie,” “cubby-hole,” or “glove-tail.” Because humans are interesting.

[3] Brendlin v. California, 551 U.S. 249 (2007).

[4] Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 US 106 (1977).

[5] Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032 (1983)

[6] Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332 (2009

[7] 756 P.2d 1057 (1988).