What To Do When Stopped By The Police: Advice From A Former Officer and Current Defense Attorney

by John Cashman

I am often asked by friends and acquaintances what I would do if pulled over or questioned by the police.  While every situation is different, and I can only speak to my preferences after 13 years spent as a patrol officer, this is what I advise my clients as a defense attorney.

First, always remember that when an officer initiates a contact, he suspects you violated some law.  This violation could vary anywhere from a minor traffic offense all the way to a capital offense.  In any case, every question he asks you is designed to confirm his suspicions.  A question as benign as “where are you heading?” will elicit whether or not you are aware of your surroundings, your direction of travel or the time, as well as whether you have difficulty speaking, etc.  I would answer such general questions as professionally and briefly as possible.

In most instances today you are also being recorded.  Any admission, no matter how slight, will be played for a jury or judge should you contest the violation.  Therefore, don’t ever admit to anything.  It can also be very helpful to your attorney if you tell the officer you would rather not answer any questions without first speaking to an attorney.  The officer will most likely continue to ask questions, and it can be hard to know exactly when the arrest decision is made (never answer questions after this point), but it may provide a defense attorney with some ammunition in your defense.

It is important to remember that officers have a tremendous amount of discretion.  In other words, an officer’s decision whether to arrest or release a person could be made based upon nothing more than his first impression of your attitude.  I would never advise a person to be obstinate in a police contact.  I believe a courteous, professional approach is best; however you should be aware of your rights.  Most officers I know initiate the traffic stop looking for something bigger.  I never met a single officer who became a police officer just to write tickets.  Keep your hands on the steering wheel to show you respect the officer’s safety concerns, and don’t attempt to litigate the case on the side of the road.  Argumentative or rude drivers are likely to be issued a citation to teach them a lesson.  Remember, it is up to the officer whether a citation or a warning is issued, or no action is taken.  A little courtesy can go a long way.

Lastly, there is nothing wrong with an officer asking any particular person or any driver during a traffic stop if they may conduct a search.  There is also nothing wrong in these circumstances with saying “no.”  Any contraband found in a consent search will likely be admissible in court, and the arrest report will clearly state the search was conducted with consent.  The trick is saying “no” without challenging the officer or angering him so much he arrests you for some trivial matter just so he can then conduct an inventory search or search incident to arrest.  My advice in these circumstances is to “blame it on the lawyer.”  Normally when someone refuses a search the officer will immediately believe the denial was made because there is some contraband in the vehicle or on your person.  To keep this assumption from occurring, I would simply say “officer, I would love to let you search my vehicle/pockets/whatever, but I know an attorney that told me that I should never say ‘yes’ to that question.”  Thus, the officer is left to decide if you are telling the truth, or if you are saying no because you have a body in the trunk.  No officer wants to waste his time taking someone to jail on traffic tickets when he could be looking for something better.  Even if an officer isn’t sure of your story, he or she will most likely move on to someone else in this situation.

There is no hard and fast rule on how to best deal with every officer.  Sometimes the decision has already been made to cite or arrest someone before the officer even makes contact.  However, in the majority of contacts, if you behave as I have outlined you will minimize the chances of offending the officer or arousing his or her suspicions.

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