The Yin and Yang of Surviving a Traffic Stop

It seems that more and more traffic stops these days are escalating into situations beyond the driver’s control. (See the Winter 2014 edition of Driving Freedoms — “We Are All Suspects” — for some jaw-dropping examples.) Knowing how to act during a stop can keep you out of serious trouble. But you also need to know and assert your rights to protect yourself from abusive enforcement practices. Finding the right balance is the key to success.

The driver in the video below clearly knew his rights and asserted them throughout his entire ordeal, not only roadside but at his hearing as well.  Although he may have come close to crossing the line once or twice, he maintained remarkable composure, considering the thuggish treatment he received. We encourage you to watch the entire video. It’s instructive from start to finish. We realize that not everyone can remain so steadfast when faced with such intimidation, but we can all do things to make sure routine traffic stops stay routine while protecting our civil rights. Review the checklist below for some tips.

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1.  Don’t draw attention to yourself on the road.

  • don’t hang out in the left lane
  • keep pace with traffic
  • stay within 5 to 10 mph of the posted limit, particularly after dark
  • don’t exceed a safe driving speed in bad weather conditions (even if you are under the posted limit, you can get a moving violation for driving faster than conditions allow)

2.  Be prepared and know your surroundings.

  • keep your driver’s license, vehicle registration, insurance, and state inspection verification (if required) up to date
  • be aware of the traffic around you; a slowdown may indicate a speed trap or accident ahead
  • be vigilant driving through small towns, particularly those near an interstate or where a major state highway goes directly through town
  • be alert for sudden speed limit reductions, for school zones, and for work zones
  • plan your trip with SpeedTrap.org and RoadBlock.org
3.  Activate your turn signal and find a safe place to pull as far out of the traffic stream as possible before turning off your engine. If you are in an isolated area and are uncertain about the identity of the person(s) who signaled you to stop, turn on your flashers and drive at reduced speed to a well-lit, well-populated area before stopping. Ask to see the officer’s ID before unlocking your door or rolling down your window.


4.  Keep your hands visible as the officer approaches.

5.  Have your driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance readily available.

6.  Keep private items (cell phones, mobile radar detectors) out of view but don’t create a flurry of activity while stuffing them into the glove compartment or under your seat. The officer will see that and immediately become suspicious.

7.  Try to remain courteous and calm, even though it is a stressful situation. This improves your chances of just getting a warning. Remember though: The officer is not your friend in this situation. Becoming chatty, which many people do under pressure, is not recommended.

8.  If you start debating the officer, you almost certainly will get a ticket. Don’t be aggressive, but just as importantly, do not be totally passive or submissive.

9. Do not incriminate yourself, not even a little bit. Every admission is duly recorded and will be used against you.

10. You are not required to answer questions about why you were stopped or how fast you were going, but if you do, be polite and and keep your answers short.

  • “Do you know why I stopped you?”–“No, I don’t.”(Nothing more or less.)
  • “Do you know how fast you were going?”–“Is that why you stopped me, officer?” (Curious, not sarcastic, tone.)  If the officer persists, simply respond with “Please tell me how fast you think I was going.” Don’t answer ”yes” or “yes, within the speed limit;” those responses will trigger repeated questions about your speed or your knowledge of the posted limit.

11. In the case of a DUI stop, any admission–even “I just had one beer” or “one glass of wine”–can be used as an excuse to arrest and test you for sobriety.

12. If the officer asks to search your vehicle, politely refuse unless he can produce a warrant. Never give permission for a search, even if you believe you have nothing to hide.

13. If the officer asks you to perform a field sobriety test, politely refuse. If he insists, do not physically resist but be sure to repeat your refusal of permission, preferably within range of the police car’s dash-cam.

14. After each refusal, ask “Am I free to leave now?”

15. Once a ticket is issued, it is in the system so don’t bother pleading your case roadside.

16. Before leaving the site of the alleged offense, gather information (if you can do so safely) and take some notes that can be valuable for your defense:

  • pinpoint your specific location (intersection, mile marker, etc.)
  • write down the license plate number and/or car number of the police vehicle
  • make sure you have the ticketing officer’s name and the name of any other officer involved with the issuance of your ticket
  • ask the officer where he/she was located when first observing your vehicle
  • note the weather, road, and traffic conditions at the time of the stop
  • take photos of the area including traffic signs that are pertinent to the charges against you

Maintaining your constitutional rights and mounting a solid ticket defense is predicated on keeping your wits about you and gathering information in a time of stress. Refer to the NMA’s “Fight That Ticket!” ebook (free for supporting members and $9.95 for basic members) for more specifics.

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One Response to “The Yin and Yang of Surviving a Traffic Stop”

  1. Brother John says:

    Yes, the days of the Andy Taylor-like friendly neighborhood policeman are over, and over decades ago. Police officers seldom, if ever, have your interests in mind; if you're pulled over, you are their enemy until such time as they've released you or you're trussed up in the back of the squad car. Under no circumstances are they to be trusted. If you're doing 61 in a 55 (an utter irrelevance), or if he had a bad burrito for lunch, they are on the hunt. They take very seriously the nonsense we're all fed about highway safety, and they are as revenue agents with sidearms and technology.