Do You Know What to Do When You Get Pulled Over?

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Flashing red and blue lights in your rear-view mirror can cause the blood to drain from your face, your hands to become clammy, and your heart to do a gymnast-style somersault. After the immediate physical effects of dread set in, questions begin to catapult forth from your mind. “How much will this cost me? “Did the officer see me texting?” “Am I going to lose my license?” The questions become louder and more frequent during that dreaded time waiting for the officer to approach your window and request your license and registration.

This is a nerve-racking situation that many will encounter during their years as drivers, which is why it is important to know your rights when a cop pulls you over. The following tips teach you what to do when you get pulled over and will make the anxiety-ridden experience more pleasant for you and the officer.

When Can an Officer Legally Pull You Over?

A cop needs probable cause — that is, a legitimate reason to believe you broke the law — in order to stop you. Speeding or driving with a broken tail light are both common examples of probable cause. Once you are pulled over, however, if a police officer observes something illegal in your vehicle such as drugs or weapons, he or she can arrest you and would not have to prove that you were speeding in court — just his account of the story suffices.

How and Where Should You Pull Over?

Unfortunately, due to the presence of crooked cops and police impersonators, it is of paramount importance to pull over in a well-lit, populated area. This promotes better safety for both the officer and driver. If you cannot pull over immediately, give a hand signal to the officer indicating that you plan to and drive the speed limit until you find a safe place; however, do not coast or drive for too long before stopping, as this could make it seem like you are trying to hide something. Once you do stop, there is some dispute as to whether or not it is a good idea to get out of the car. While staying in the driver’s seat could lead to the suspicion that you are concealing a weapon, getting out of the car can also seem threatening to some officers. A retired State Trooper in Virginia told the AOL Autos section that he never wanted drivers to get out of the car, as to him this indicated that he or she had something to be afraid of.

I don’t care if you’re the baddest officer there is, there’s always someone out there who’s badder than you, and if we can keep them inside the car, that’s the best way to keep from being injured.

-Retired Virginia State Trooper

Be On Your Best Behavior

You’ve already been pulled over, and whether or not you think this action was justified, it is important to be courteous to the officer to avoid provoking him or her to slam you with a higher fine or charge. Take a few deep breaths, greet the officer kindly, and don’t make any snide remarks.

According to the same retired Virginia officer, a woman once harassed him while he was trying to write her ticket. “I had to roll my window up while she was yelling at me…Well, I guess she didn’t like that because she yanked my door open and said, ‘Don’t you ignore me, you m——- f——!’ Well, that was it, she crossed the line there, so I cuffed her and arrested her for disorderly conduct and took her in.” Had she kept her cool, the woman may have prevented an unnecessarily unpleasant experience for both her and the officer.

It’s important to remember that you have the right to remain silent. Choosing your words carefully can be beneficial, as officers often seek an admittance of guilt from the driver. The 5th Amendment protects individuals against self-incrimination. This means that you can answer “no” to an officer when he or she asks if you know why you were pulled over and to similar questions.

After the officer issues a ticket, warning, or other penalty, ask him or her if you may leave. This avoids the chance of leaving any loose ends or seeming like you are trying to make a getaway.

When Can a Cop Search Your Car or Cell Phone?

A police officer can legally search your vehicle under five circumstances:

  1. If the officer asks and you consent to the search
  2. If you have an illegal substance or object in plain sight
  3. If you are arrested for a legitimate reason
  4. If the officer has adequate reasoning to suspect a crime
  5. If the officer believes crucial evidence could be destroyed without a search

These five criteria also dictate when an officer can do a search on a home. Minor traffic violations on their own do not constitute just cause for a search. The 4th Amendment provides the right to refuse a search, but officers do not need to inform drivers of this.

Recently, the Supreme Court heard a case regarding whether or not it is lawful for officers to search the contents of cell phones without a warrant. The justices determined that doing so is generally unlawful, except to physically examine the phone to ensure it cannot be used as a weapon. If a police officer asks to search your phone, you can refuse to consent to the search until he or she has a warrant.

Know Your State Laws

Being at least slightly familiar with the driving laws in your state can be immensely beneficial in the event that you are pulled over. These laws can vary immensely from state to state, especially with regard to the use of electronic devices while operating a vehicle. For example, in New York, it is unlawful to talk on a cell phone whereas other states permit the use of hands-free devices.

Knowing even your most basic rights as a driver can only serve as a benefit in the event that you are pulled over. Click here to see an infographic with a state by state overview of driving.


Marisa Mostek (@MarisaJ44loves globetrotting and writing, so she is living the dream by writing while living abroad in Japan and working as an English teacher. Marisa received her undergraduate degree from the University of Colorado in Boulder and a certificate in journalism from UCLA. Contact Marisa at

Featured Image Courtesy of [Jace via Pixabay]

Marisa Mostek
Marisa Mostek loves globetrotting and writing, so she is living the dream by writing while living abroad in Japan and working as an English teacher. Marisa received her undergraduate degree from the University of Colorado in Boulder and a certificate in journalism from UCLA. Contact Marisa at



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