News English

Pulled over by Police

Getting pulled over by police can be a frightening experience, especially for those of you who may not be familiar with the US justice system or may not speak English fluently. This article is intended to help you have a smooth interaction with police by informing you of your rights and giving you some tips on how to behave during the interaction.

To begin, if you are driving a vehicle and notice police lights and sirens behind you, you should safely pull over to the right-most lane or shoulder if one is present.  If you are in the left lane or in heavy traffic and cannot safely pull over immediately, don’t fret; after all, the key to a smooth interaction is remaining calm and keeping your wits about you.  If you cannot immediately pull over without risking harm to yourself or others, simply acknowledge the police by putting on your blinking hazard lights, and pulling over as soon and as safely possible.

  • It is important to remember that, as soon as a police officer decides to pull you over, he or she already believes that you have violated a law, and he or she will begin collecting observations of your behavior and words that will later serve as “evidence” in their case against you. In the US justice system, observations of police, and your own words during the transaction, can both serve as “evidence” even if the interaction is not recorded, photographed, or memorialized.  For this reason, it is imperative that you know how to behave and how to protect yourself. In this regard, one of the first things an officer will note is how you pulled over. If you pulled over erratically or slammed on your breaks, or pulled over in such a way as to disrupt traffic, this will be used as evidence against you.  So stay calm and safely pull to the side of the road.

Once you get to a safe location on the side of the road, turn off your vehicle and stay inside. Do not get out of the car and avoid making any sudden movements. Police are trained to watch for violent people or people who may be armed. Do not give them any reason to believe that you are dangerous.

The police officer will typically approach your side of the vehicle and ask to see your driver’s license, registration, and insurance card. As you gather your documents and begin the interaction, make sure to be polite. If an officer finds you rude, he or she will be less likely to extend you any courtesies.

  • At this point, it is very important that you do not give off the impression that you fully understand the officer if you don’t. If you do not understand every word the officer is saying, do not be shy. Ask for a translator.  Your interaction with police is very important and you must fully and completely understand in order to protect yourself! It is not, in any way, a hindrance to you to ask for a translator.  You will not be punished and no one will look down on you. If a translator is not available, make sure that you inform the officer that English is limited.

For example, once you give the officer your driving credentials, he or she will often ask you if you “know why you’ve been pulled over” or “how many drinks have you had.” Legally, you are under no obligation to give answers to these questions and be assured, whatever you say will be used against you when you go to court as a “confession.” Even if an officer says “I’ll let you go if you tell me what you did” or “it’s cool I know everyone drinks, how many did you have 3-4?” or something like this, you should politely decline to answer, especially if you have any limitations on your English at all.  Your answers count as evidence against you. Period.  Also, certain nuances in the English language may accidentally cause you to incriminate yourself. Avoid these circumstances by either saying; “I’m sorry officer, my English is limited” or if your English is not limited or if the officer persists, tell him that you “will be happy to comply, but would like to speak with your lawyer first before answering any questions.”

You should not feel shy about declining to answer. This is very important. In the US legal system, it is not considered disrespectful or uncooperative to request your lawyer. In fact, it is quite normal, almost expected.  You do not get any courtesies for giving the officers evidence against you.  If you have something to tell the officer that you think may be helpful to you, you and your lawyer can discuss this first, and arrange to speak with police or a prosecutor on a later date.
If you do decide to answer questions, avoid lying. Officers are trained to detect lies and if you lie and the officer can prove it, the fact that you tried to lie will be held against you and will serve to discredit everything else you say in court.

  • During the interaction, if an officer asks you to step out of the vehicle, you must listen. However, the officer does not automatically have the right to search your car. With very few exceptions, an officer must either have your consent or authorization from a judge in order to search your car. Thus, an officer on scene will usually ask you for permission to search the car.  If an officer asks you to search your vehicle, you have the right to refuse. Politely say, “no, I do not consent.”  If an officer searches your car anyway despite your saying no, be sure to tell this fact to your attorney.

If you’ve been pulled over for drunk driving, you may be asked to take “field sobriety tests.” These are a series of physical exams an officer will have you perform on the side of the road in order to test your coordination. This is because alcohol causes a decline in coordination and your failure to perform these tests can be used to prove your intoxication. However, you are not legally obligated to take these tests. If an officer asks you to perform these tests, you can reply: “no thank you officer, I’d rather not take the tests, I’d like to call my lawyer.”
This is different from the chemical breath or blood test at the police station. These chemical tests you are obligated to take. You can refuse, but you will likely be charged with “refusing the breath test” and subjected to penalties.  This may be a better option for some individuals based upon very particular circumstances. A lawyer can help you decide if it’s right for you, though you will not have much time. It is wise to keep your lawyer’s number handy. Saving it in your cell phone now is a wise choice.

As you go through your interaction with police, remember three things. First; stay calm. Your actions are being noted by the officer. Second; you have the right to remain silent and the right to a lawyer. So take advantage of your rights. It cannot be held against you. Tell the officer you want to call your lawyer right away and never try to explain what happened in English unless you have a mastery of the language; otherwise you risk accidentally giving evidence against yourself due to small linguistic nuances.  Even if you have mastered the English language, it is wise not to answer questions.

  • Lastly, make a mental list of what happened during the interaction and look around you. Are there any people that could be witnesses? If so, consider approaching them (as long as you are not in danger) and ask for their name and contact information. Are there any businesses around that may have surveillance cameras?  If so, jot down the name and location of the business. Take pictures with your cell phone of any helpful evidence; if you have any injuries caused by your interaction, take pictures and give them to your lawyer.  The more information the lawyer has, the better so make a list of circumstances before, during, and after the incident that you can use once you call your lawyer.

Stay calm. Be polite. Ask to speak to a lawyer before answering any questions. Remembering these three rules will greatly improve your interaction with police, and ultimately, will work to your benefit if charges are logged against you.  An experienced lawyer will make the most of your circumstances, getting charges reduced or even dismissed where possible.