While there are an infinite number of things that people will tell you when it comes to what you should do if the police pull you over, my goal here is to give a simple explanation of your rights and what you can expect when those scary blue lights flash in your rear view mirror.
The First thing you should do is actually pull over. Nothing good will happen if you keep driving, speed up or don’t obey the signal to pull over, in fact they can give you a ticket for it. However, if you are in a sketchy area or completely isolated, you can contact the police department via 911 to make sure that the person pulling you over is in fact a law enforcement officer.
“What are my rights in Virginia when I am pulled over?”
As an attorney I am forced to say, “Well, that depends.” It’s not the answer you want but it is the correct answer because there are many variables that will determine what your rights are given a particular stop.
Under the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, everyone is protected from “Unreasonable Searches and Seizures” of their persons and their property. As all drivers know come tax season, cars are considered personal property. Therefore you are entitled to some level of privacy in your own vehicle, but since it can drive away there are also exceptions.
”I don’t understand why I was pulled over?”
There many reasons you could have been pulled over, anything from a simple moving violation like speeding or failure to signal to something more serious like swerving due to possible intoxication. Even a broken taillight can be sufficient reason for the police to stop your car.
“What happens when the officer talks to me?”
The police can pull you over for a temporary reasonable amount of time under what is known as a “Terry Stop.” Under a “Terry Stop” an officer can pull you over to alert you of the misconduct he/she observed which caused them to pull you over, at the same time they can use that temporary reasonable amount of time to determine if you are up to some other kind of misconduct. Like smelling the inside of your vehicle to determine the presence of drugs of alcohol.
The “Terry Stop” allows the officer to investigate to determine you are who you say you are, that you have the right to drive (valid Driver’s License), that you are allowed to drive the vehicle you are in and that the vehicle is insured. Your rights during this type of stop are slightly reduced since you do have to cooperate with the officer in his investigation of the mentioned things, but you do have the right not to make any incriminating statements.
You do not have to answer questions regarding your activity or whether you had any knowledge of your speed or broken equipment on the car, but you should always be polite. Remember, if there is anything illegal in the car, drug paraphernalia, open containers of alcohol, guns etc, that are visible to the officer then you could be in more trouble than for whatever infraction the officer used to initiate the stop.
“Searches based on the Traffic Stop”
To search you car and your person an officer must have probable cause to believe that some illegal act or activity is going on. A drug dog on the scene or something sitting in plain site on the seat next to you is sufficient to create that probable cause. Absent that however, the police do not have the right to conduct a search.
This means when an officer asks if he can search your car, you can decline. Politely tell them that you do not consent to a search. Despite what the police tell you, if you are pulled over and they say that it is for a broken taillight, they do not automatically get to search your car. A common mistake people make is letting the officers conduct a search when they would otherwise have no right to do so.
There are circumstances when the officer will give you an “articulable and justifiable reason” to conduct a search. Typically this comes up when they believe that you may have a weapon on you, which then means they can conduct a limited pat down search of your person for officer safety.
Refusing to allow the police to search means that you are protecting your rights to challenge anything they might find on your person or in the car. Issues of the legitimacy of a search is something that comes up during a trial and should be discussed in detail with your attorney.
“What if I did do something illegal?”
The police must have some reason to believe that you have been involved in some form of illegal activity. If your car matches the description of a vehicle seen leaving a robbery, then they do have the right to pull you over. The officer will still need a “reasonable articulable suspicion” that you have been involved in some illegal activity.
The initial stop however is still a “Terry Stop” and must abide by those rules. If the officer has probable cause to suspect that you have been involved in the illegal activity, then he can place you under arrest at which point your 4th Amendment Rights against a warrantless search are further reduced.
“They made me get out of the car”
Yes, they can do that. If you are asked to exit the vehicle expect to be patted down. The officers will do this to make sure you have no weapons on your person, however they always tend to find small illegal things that people sometimes keep in their pockets. All of this is done, and will be upheld by the Court, for Officers’ Safety.
If you are under arrest, then they can and will ask you to empty your own pockets. Anything illegal that may come out is now in plain site. If you are not under arrest they do not have the right to touch you or remove anything from your pockets. They will ask however, so be aware that you may have to kindly decline.
Passenger compartments can also be searched if you are under arrest. Locked spaces are supposed to off limits as are areas not within the cabin or sitting area of the vehicle. They can get a warrant however, so it could be a long night.
“I got a ticket, what do I do about it?
If you get a ticket the most important thing to do is be polite to the officer. It really does matter whether you were civil to them or not. Being polite to the officer can sometimes make a difference in getting found guilty, getting a reduced fine, or sometimes even having the violations dismissed. That being said, when they ask to search your car, you can still assert your rights and ask that they get a warrant.
For specific questions about a ticket you may have received contact us today.
(804) 257-7233 for your Free Consultation