Literally… the Rules of the Road

As a lawyer who specializes in auto accidents and lawsuits, friends and clients ask me all the time what they should do when they are pulled over by a police officer. We’ve all been there…. You’re singing your little heart out to Taylor Swift when all of a sudden you see that red and blue flash in your rear view mirror. Your heart starts beating fast, your palms get sweaty and you tell the kids in the back seat not to worry. The most common reason for getting pulled over is a traffic violation such as speeding, running a stop sign or a lane violation. Here’s a reminder on how to deliver a textbook response.

First of all remember that the police officer does not know you and has no idea what kind of a situation he or she is walking into. Every year police officers get shot after pulling a motorist over on a simple traffic stop not realizing that the person he pulled over is a fugitive or carrying a load of heroin in the trunk. You know you are not a serial killer, but remember that police officer has no idea who you are and what you are up to. Be respectful of the difficult and dangerous job these guys have.
Right is right. Missouri law requires a motorist to pull over as far to the right as possible when emergency equipment vehicle lights are on. You must remain stopped until the vehicle has passed you (if he/she is not pulling YOU over) or until an officer has indicated that it’s ok to go. When you pull over use your judgment and common sense and put yourself in a position where you are not in danger or impeding traffic.
• Be quiet and calm. You will typically get an explanation as to why you are being pulled over, right away. The officer will want to see your driver’s license and proof of insurance. Wait for the trooper to ask for it – do not reach for anything under your seat or in your glove compartment while the trooper is approaching your vehicle. (Sudden movements may alarm the officer or may it look like you are hiding something or reaching for a weapon.)
• Stay seated. Do not get out of the car unless the officer requests it.
• Listen. Let the officer do most of the talking and avoid an argument. Do not say anything that can be used against you. If you are asked “do you know you have been pulled over”, respond “no”. If asked, “do you have any idea of how fast you were going”, simply answer “yes”. You do not want to incriminate yourself by admitting to violations. Be polite but don’t admit guilt – a noncommittal response such as “ok, thanks” or “I understand” are recommended.
• Smiles everybody smiles. Should you receive a ticket, it’s best to maintain a cooperative attitude. If you want to contest it, this is not the time or place for that.
• Take precaution. If you are alone or uncertain as to whether or not the person who has pulled you over is a legitimate law enforcement authority, leave your car doors locked and roll your window down slightly so that your voice can be heard. You can express your concern and request that the trooper go to a public place. (Most officers will understand this request.) Once you are in a public place, you can ask for identification. You can also Dial 911 and tell them where you are and that you have been pulled over by someone who you suspect may not be a police officer.
• That’s the ticket. The traffic ticket is actually a legal document. By signing it, you are not admitting guilt but rather receipt of the ticket and an understanding of the options to pay or contest it and the associated dates. Once you have a copy of the ticket, you have “been served” to appear in court. The trooper may give you a document explaining the mail-in procedure. If you lose your copy of the ticket, you must contact the associate circuit court of the county in which the ticket was written. You MUST handle the ticket within a timely manner to avoid additional penalties or a warrant.