Many of you have felt that sinking feeling in your stomach after noticing the flashing lights of a police car in their rear view mirror. At best, getting pulled over by police and cited will ruin your day. At worst, you could end up arrested. More likely, you are left with the cost of a hefty court fine for the citation, and a mark on your driving record which can impact your auto insurance rates. What follows are some general tips which will hopefully help you avoid being pulled over and help you feel more prepared if you are pulled over.
1. Understand the traffic laws and obey them – This seems obvious, but many people have common misconceptions about what type of conduct can lead to getting a citation. For example, you can be stopped and ticketed for going any amount of speed above the posted speed limit, even if you were just keeping up with the flow of traffic. There is no automatic, five or ten miles per hour grace. While it is true that many police officers exercise discretion and choose not to stop vehicles for minor traffic violations, that does not mean that it doesn’t happen. Other common violations are not coming to a complete stop at a stop sign, not signaling a turn, driving too fast for weather conditions and going through a red light just as it turns red. You may think your driving conduct did not put anyone else at risk; you may know that most officers wouldn’t have pulled you over for that conduct; you may correctly observe that “lots of other people do it, and don’t get pulled over.” It doesn’t matter. You can still be stopped and ticketed if you violate the traffic laws. “No harm-no foul” is not a defense. It’s key to develop good driving habits to avoid committing these minor violations because even a minor moving violation can lead to costly fines and increases in insurance rates.
2. Drive Defensively – Entire classes are offered to provide training on defensive driving. They teach how to anticipate dangerous situations, adverse conditions and likely mistakes of other drivers. A central theme of the defensive driving strategy is to avoid driving aggressively. If you do so, you are more likely avoid accidents and less likely to get cited for one of the petty offenses described in Tip 1.
3. Don’t Give Police a Reason Other than Driving Conduct to Stop You – Make sure your motor vehicle’s equipment complies with the law. Police can initiate a stop upon observing any equipment malfunction. This includes seat belts, so buckle up! Other common infractions include turn signals and headlights. Test these periodically and make sure they are operational. If you have a cracked windshield or faulty muffler, get it repaired. If your windows are tinted, make sure they are compliant with the law. Make sure your license plates are not obstructed and your registration is current. If you let these things slide, you are just asking to get stopped.
4. If you get pulled over, be courteous and don’t talk too much – If you follow my general advice on Tips 1-3, then hopefully you avoid getting pulled over. However, sometimes even the safest drivers make a misstep, and sometimes you get pulled over for no good reason. Whatever the reason or lack thereof for the traffic stop, be respectful and courteous with the officer. Don’t argue or get hostile with him or her. Don’t shout things like: “I know my rights!” Failing to show respect for the officer will needlessly escalate the traffic stop and provoke further conflict. Whatever you are stopped for, you are unlikely to talk your way out of getting issued a citation at the roadside. In fact, you are more likely to get a warning, instead of a citation, if you keep a respectful, courteous tone.
And, while you don’t need to tell the officer you know your rights, you can certainly show the officer that you do. You must comply with a request to produce your driver’s license, insurance and registration. You must also comply with an order given by a law enforcement officer, such as an order to get out of the car. But you need not consent to requests to search your vehicle, nor do you need to answer questions about your driving behavior. An officer might ask “Do you know why I pulled you over?” or “Do you know how fast you were going?” You may politely refuse to answer such questions.
If you are issued a traffic citation, or have questions about your rights, don’t hesitate to call Wagner, Falconer and Judd.