Protecting Your Rights: What To Do When Pulled Over In Wisconsin

August 30, 2019

The majority of traffic stops are routine and end in either a warning or some form of citation for a traffic violation. However, a significant percentage of criminal charges arise out of what begins as a routine stop. If an officer suspects criminal activity, he or she may request to search you or your vehicle, ask incriminating questions, or arrest you for a crime that was not perceived at the outset. This article offers guidance to help reduce the likelihood of incriminating yourself during a police stop.

Before the Officer Approaches

It’s important to be mindful of the fact that an officer is likely wearing a body camera or video recording when a traffic stop begins. Once the stop is initiated, you should carefully, but promptly, slow down and signal to the right, and pull over in a safe location. Taking too long to pull over can be misconstrued as fleeing or impairment. Pulling over erratically can also be considered a sign of impairment.

After you have safely pulled over, put your vehicle in park and turn it off. Turning off the car signals you are not likely to flee, and can calm the officer. While waiting for the officer, it is critical that you avoid sudden movements or appear to be reaching for or moving objects. Officers specifically watch for activity in the front seat of the vehicle, as it can insinuate the driver is reaching for a weapon or hiding illegal substances. Such circumstances could inadvertently cause a simple traffic stop to escalate into a situation in which the officer deems it necessary to use force. It could also create “probable cause” that evidence of a crime is in your vehicle, which would allow the officer to search your vehicle without your consent.

Keep your hands plainly visible on the steering wheel. Do not exit the vehicle unless instructed to.

Talking with the Officer

After the officer has approached your vehicle, wait until the officer speaks before saying anything. Do not, for example, instantly apologize for speeding. Remember to assume everything you say is recorded.  Many officers have either a microphone on their uniform, a bodycam, or a dash camera.

The officer will likely ask for your license, insurance card, and registration.  Ideally, you will know where those are located.  If your registration is in the glove box, tell the officer your registration is in the glove box and ask if you can retrieve it from there. If your license is in your wallet, let the officer know where your wallet is, and ask if you can reach for it. Again, it is important to avoid sudden, erratic movements.  Try to retrieve your license without rummaging around.  Officers consider fumbling for the license to be a sign of impairment.

The officer will ask questions. You must answer questions about your identity, and you must produce your license, registration, and proof of insurance.  Lying is never an option.  That said, you should not admit guilt either. Try to keep your answers noncommittal, and simply acknowledge the statements from police rather than agreeing. For example, if a police officer tells you, “I clocked you going forty-seven in a thirty-five back there,” you should say, “okay” or “I understand,” rather than agreeing or admitting that you were, in fact, speeding.  If you were not speeding, say so.  If the honest answer to a question would require you to admit guilt, you may be better off refusing to answer the question.  “I don’t feel comfortable answering that question without talking to my attorney first” is a reasonable answer to a question that would require you to incriminate yourself.

Similarly, if an officer asks you, “Do you know why I pulled you over?” the answer should always be “No,” even if you are aware that you were speeding or that you have contraband in the vehicle. “No” is a fair answer because how would you know exactly why the officer acted?  Officers are fishing for an admission of guilt.

Clarify, Comply, and Fight the Stop

While communicating with the police officer, it is possible he or she will ask you to do certain things. Police on a traffic stop are not only looking for traffic violations; they may also be looking for evidence of more serious crimes, such as whether you are intoxicated, whether you have any illegal weapons, or whether you possess drugs or other contraband.

When responding to any questions or orders from police officers beyond the basic traffic stop questions, it is best to recall these three steps:

  1. Clarify
  2. Comply
  3. Court

Clarify – Most people are used to obeying police officer instructions. Police officers use this to get you to do things at a traffic stop that they can only do with your permission. The biggest example of this is asking to search your vehicle. Whether or not an officer can search your vehicle is a complex legal question relating to whether the officer has “probable cause” to believe evidence of a crime is inside the vehicle. While it may seem like giving consent and trying to be helpful will get you into less trouble, it is actually the fastest way to get into more trouble.

If the officer asks, “Can I search your vehicle?” The answer should always be “No” or “No, I do not consent to you searching my vehicle.” If, however, the officer says, “I’m going to search your vehicle, okay?”, or “You don’t mind if I search your trunk, do you?”  This is where clarification is required.  Calmly and politely, ask if you must comply. Say something like, “Am I required to let you search?” or “Do I have to comply?” If the officer acknowledges you are not required to, then say no.  Generally, if the officer needs permission to search, these statements will prevent that search from occurring, protecting your rights.

Comply – If the officer says you must comply, follow the officer’s orders. If the officer searches your car without consent, then he or she is going to have to prove at some point later that the search was legal. If the officer orders you to wait on the side of the road or in the squad car, do exactly as instructed. Arguing with the officer never helps.  It is a sure-fire way to escalate an already bad situation.  Regardless of what the officer orders, the best course of action is always to comply with the officer. You are not going to win an argument about what the police officer can or cannot do at the scene of the stop and, if you argue enough, you might even get arrested and charged with additional crimes. Remember, this applies only to orders for you to take some action. Do not let an officer intimidate you into admitting guilt. Remain calm, comply with orders, and stay silent as much as possible.

Court – If the traffic stop results in a citation, discovery of contraband, or arrest – the best course of action may be to evaluate your rights by talking to an attorney.  This may result in contesting the matter in court.  If arrested, ask for a lawyer as soon as you are read your Miranda rights, and do not waive any of your rights. If police or other persons ask to speak with you about your case, repeat that you want to speak with a lawyer. Wait to discuss your case with your attorney. An attorney will be able to advise you and develop a strategy to fight the charges against you.