Imagine that it is late at night and you are driving down a deserted highway in the middle of nowhere. You’ve just left a party where you had a few drinks. You are certainly not drunk but you smell like you’ve had a few. You are driving along at a reasonable speed when a police officer comes out of nowhere and signals for you to pull over.
First things first. When the cop asks you for your “papers,” you must provide them. License, registration, proof of insurance. If you are missing any of these, it could spawn a longer stop, calls to police headquarters, and possible further police action. So keep your data handy! And don’t argue.
Always remember to do as the officer requests and remain calm. The police officer will probably ask for your driver’s license and registration. This is the typical and normal procedure when an officer pulls somebody over.
And that concludes my exhaustive list of your obligations at a traffic stop. So long as you stop short of actively breaking the law by threatening the cops, say, or producing a gun, you have fulfilled your legal obligations. Now onto the important things you do not have to do for the police.
It is important to remember that you have rights. The Fifth Amendment protects you from answering self-incriminating questions that the officer might ask during questioning. For example, a police officer might ask you if you have been drinking or how many drinks have you had tonight. You have a right to refuse to answer this question and remain silent. The officer might use this in their testimony against you but it is often better than answering and giving him evidence against you.
That’s correct, you do not have to answer any questions at all, even if they seem trivial. If the cop asks you if you know why you were pulled over, you can simply say, “I’d rather not answer questions.” If he asks if you have any drugs in the car, you can say, “I choose not to answer that.” Heck, even if he asks how your day is going, you may feel free to stonewall as necessary.
There is a good reason to avoid answering questions, besides the small satisfaction of being frustrating: your answers may incriminate you in ways you aren’t aware of. Details about your day, your travels, your cargo, and even your friends can come back to haunt you in Texas criminal court. Believe me when I say this: the cops are not interested in being friendly or making small talk. They are looking for reasons to detain you, search your vehicle, and ultimately make an arrest. Their questions are the tip of the spear, designed to precipitate a slip and get you out of your car and into some cuffs.
This brings me to your other important legal right at a traffic stop: you have the right to refuse a search. Traffic stops are governed by a set of laws surrounding search and seizure, but the upshot is simple: Just Say No. Unless the cops have a warrant, they are not permitted to enter your vehicle or move its contents in any way without your permission.
Do not give it to them under any circumstances.
Even if a cop asks to search your vehicle under benign pretenses – say, to check for an oil leak – you are fully within your rights to say, “Sorry officer, I don’t consent to a search.”
Now, you will forfeit the right to refuse a search if the cops have probable cause to search your vehicle. Probable cause is a fairly ambiguous term, subject to a lot of disagreement, but most people agree that it makes some sense. If the cops smell drugs or see a pipe or a bong in plain view, that’s probable cause. If the cops see open alcohol containers, that’s probable cause. Anything that would lead a reasonable person to suspect foul play constitutes cause, so the wise thing is to show some decorum and keep your personal items out of view. It could save you a search, and all that follows.
I know what you’re thinking: isn’t all this refusal suspicious? Absolutely not. Exercising your rights does not imply that you are guilty in any way. A sly cop may try to convince you otherwise, but Texas criminal law is clear on this point: you may exercise your right to remain silent and to refuse a search without suggesting any kind of impropriety. It’s just smart to avail yourself of the many privileges you are accorded by law, especially when the cops are trying to do the opposite.
Never jump out of your car or make any sudden sporadic movements. Remain in your car until the officer asks you to get out. The officer might ask you to step out of the car and perform certain sobriety tests. You are within your legal rights to refuse these tests. Remember that these are used specifically to back up the officer’s claim that you were intoxicated. This might also be a good time to refer to your Fifth Amendment rights.
At this point, some officers might ask that you take a breathalyzer test to determine how much alcohol is in your system. Statistics show that breathalyzer tests are very unreliable. You have the right to refuse a breathalyzer test but it is important to understand that the refusal to take a breathalyzer test will result in the suspension of your driver’s license.
Remember that if you are pulled over and an officer suspects you are under the influence of alcohol or another substance, he will try to obtain any and all evidence he can. By knowing your rights you will be better prepared to limit the evidence against you in this situation.