Stopped By The Cops? Know Your Rights

January 7, 2011

A couple weeks ago I posted an in-depth series of tips for when you get pulled over by the cops. Some of these are common sense - don't touch! stay in the car! - but some others touch upon the basic rights provided you by our still-popular U.S. Constitution. I want to expand on these basic rights a little further, because they go beyond good advice and into the realm of Essential Legal Knowledge. Understanding your rights at a traffic stop can mean the different between a search-and-seizure and a routine stop - and between an arrest and an acquittal.

First things first. When the cop asks you for your "papers," you must provide them. License, registration, proof of insurance - the whole nine. If you are missing any of these, it could spawn a longer stop, calls to police headquarters and possible further police action. So keep your data handy! And don't argue.

...And that concludes my exhaustive list of your obligations at a traffic stop. So long as you stop short of actively breaking the law by threatening the cops, say, or producing a gun, you have fulfilled your legal obligations. Now onto the important things you do not have to do for the police.

Answer questions. That's correct, you do not have to answer any questions at all, even if they seem trivial. If the cop asks you if you know why you were pulled over, you can simply say, "I'd rather not answer questions." If he asks if you have any drugs in the car, you can say, "I choose not to answer that." Heck, even if he asks how your day is going, you may feel free to stonewall as necessary.

There is a good reason to avoid answering questions, besides the small satisfaction of being frustrating: your answers may incriminate you in ways you aren't aware of. Details about your day, your travels, your cargo, even your friends can come back to haunt you in Texas criminal court. Believe me when I say this: the cops are not interested in being friendly or making small talk. They are looking for reasons to detain you, search your vehicle, and ultimately make an arrest. Their questions are the tip of the spear, designed to precipitate a slip and get you out of your car and into some cuffs.

This brings me to your other important legal right at a traffic stop: you have the right to refuse a search. Traffic stops are governed by a set of laws surrounding search and seizure, but the upshot is simple: Just Say No. Unless the cops have a warrant, they are not permitted to enter your vehicle or move its contents in any way without your permission.

Do not give it to them under any circumstances.

Even if a cop asks to search your vehicle under benign pretenses - say, to check for an oil leak - you are fully within your rights to say, "Sorry officer, I don't consent to a search."

Now, you will forfeit the right to refuse a search if the cops have probable cause to search your vehicle. Probable cause is a fairly ambiguous term, subject to a lot of disagreement, but most people agree that it makes some sense. If the cops smell drugs, or see a pipe or a bong in plain view, that's probable cause. If the cops see open alcohol containers, that's probable cause. Anything that would lead a reasonable person to suspect foul play constitutes cause, so the wise thing is to show some decorum and keep your personal items out of view. It could save you a search, and all that follows.

I know what you're thinking: isn't all this refusal suspicious? Absolutely not. Exercising your rights does not imply that you are guilty in any way. A sly cop may try to convince you otherwise, but Texas criminal law is clear on this point: you may exercise your right to remain silent and to refuse a search without suggesting any kind of impropriety. It's just smart to avail yourself of the many privileges you are accorded by law, especially when the cops are trying to do the opposite.

One final note: if these rights are not enough to keep you out of trouble and your traffic stop ends in an arrest regardless, you will need to retain an experienced Texas criminal attorney right away. Let's hope it doesn't come to that. Stay cautious out there!