Always Keep Your Hands Visible
Video Transcribed: So what are some common pitfalls that you can encounter during a traffic stop? My name is Brian L. Jackson. I am a Tulsa lawyer with the Wirth Law Office. I want to talk about some common pitfalls in traffic stops that get people tickets. Well, let’s start by walking through your typical traffic stop. So you’re driving down the highway, let’s say. You look in your rearview mirror and you see some lights go on.
What’s your first thought? “Oh crap, the police. I’m getting stopped.” So the first pitfall is not stopping fast enough. If you see emergency lights go on behind you, a good rule of thumb is to stop as soon as you can do so safely. Now, this is not to say that you do something like, if you’re going over a bridge, stop right in the middle of the bridge where there’s no shoulder or stop in a place with a narrow shoulder and a concrete barrier.
Obviously, you don’t want to jeopardize your safety or the officer’s safety and realistically, any reasonable cop is not going to jack with you because you didn’t stop in a dangerous place. In fact, most cops will thank you for not doing that. So that’s the first thing: stop as soon as you reasonably can do so safely.
And if you do have to drive some distance to find a safe place, it’s important to signal to the officer that you see them and your intention is to stop. One way to do that is to slow down and flick your hazard lights on. That’ll signal to the officer, “Look, I’m not trying to run from you. I’m trying to look for somewhere to stop safely so that I don’t get us both hurt.” That’s the first rule. Now, let’s say you’ve gone through that.
You’ve found a safe place to stop. You pull over. A cop gets out of his car, walks up to your… Or let’s back up. You pull over. What do you do next? If you’re stopped during the day, the most important thing is is to keep your hands someplace visible.
A good rule is you have both hands on the wheel and keep them there, have your hands open and fingers up, or just have your hands visible where the cop can see them. And don’t do anything like reach for things or make any movements in the car while you’re waiting for the cop to come up to the car.
Why is that? Well, there’s a couple of reasons. There’s a legal reason and then there’s a safety rule reason. The legal reason is if the cop sees you messing around in the car as he’s approaching, he might interpret that to mean that you’re trying to hide something.
It could get you searched because that could be used to develop probable cause to search a car. So you want to sit still, keep your hands visible. The other reason is a safety reason, and that has to do with you do not want that cop to conclude you’re reaching for a weapon. Again, it could get you searched. It could also get you shot at if the cop feels endangered. You could jeopardize your safety if it looks like you’re reaching for something that you shouldn’t be reaching for.
So keep your hands visible. Now at night, a good safety rule is to hit the dome light and then put your hands on the wheel and keep them there until the cop approaches. And again, the reason for this is simple. You want the cop to be able to see you’re not doing anything you shouldn’t be doing, and then you want them to be able to see your hands so they don’t have any reason to think you were reaching for a weapon or trying to hide something or whatever.
It’s also a good rule of thumb to cut the engine on your car. Again, you want to signal to the cop you’re not going anywhere. You’re going to cooperate. And all of these are things that will signal to the cop that you’re cooperative.
And I’m going to get into some other reasons why this is important later on in this discussion, but suffice it to say these are good safety rules. So you’ve done all these things. You’ve followed the safety rules, and now the cops approached your window and he is asking you the obvious question. “Do you know why I pulled you over?” How do you answer this and not jam yourself up? This is a common pitfall because what’s the easiest thing for someone to blurt out? “Well, I was going too fast.” Or, “Well, maybe I forgot to signal on that turn back there or I ran the yellow.”
If you say any of those things, you’ve now admitted to violating the traffic code. In other words, you admitted to a crime. And understand, that cop can ask you questions by the side of the road and he does not have to Mirandize you. That is, he doesn’t have to warn you about your rights, but you do have a right to remain silent. Use it. If a cop asks you, “Do you know why I pulled you over?” The correct answer and the only correct answer is, “No, officer. I have no idea.” And I want you to think about this carefully because this answer is never a lie.
And I will tell you why it’s never a lie. I don’t care if you’re going down the highway at a hundred miles an hour and you see those lights go off. Unless you went to Hogwarts and learned to read minds, you have no idea what that cop saw or thought he saw that caused him to try to pull you over. So shut it. Or if you feel compelled to say something, the correct answer is, “No, officer. I have no idea.”
Another way to handle that is don’t answer it at all. Another way to handle that too is to preempt the question by asking the officer, “Well, good afternoon, good morning, good evening, officer. What seems to be the problem?” Don’t admit to things. Don’t tell them you were doing something wrong. Another thing is don’t apologize. They say you were speeding. They say that you failed to yield. They say you failed to signal. They say the light’s out over your tag.
Whatever it is they tell you as their reason for pulling you over, don’t apologize. You’re better off not to say anything. Don’t comment because anything you say might be taken as an admission of guilt. And if you do end up contesting that later, you don’t want them to be able to say you admitted that you were wrong. So it’s an important rule. Don’t admit things. Now, okay, you get past that part and the cop asked for your license and registration, or in Oklahoma, they’re going to ask for your license and proof of insurance.
So here’s how you do that. A good idea, especially at night, is, “Okay, officer. I’m reaching for my wallet. It’s in my front pocket.” And then carefully reach for it. Get out what you need, hand it to the officer through your window. Can the officer ask you to get out of the car? Legally, yes, they can. Now, if you are ordered to get out of the car, you should get out, immediately shut the door, and lock it. If the cop asks to search your car, the correct answer to that should always be, “Well, officer.
With all due respect, I understand you have a job to do. I do not consent to searches.” Don’t consent to a search of your car ever. I don’t care if you think you don’t have anything to hide. There’s a couple of important things to think about, but the big one is how much do you really know about the contents of your car? Can you say with absolute certainty, there’s nothing in there that’s going to get you arrested or cited.
I think in most cases for most of us, you could say, “I’m pretty sure there’s nothing illegal in there,” but you probably don’t know it a hundred percent, down pat certain because most of us carry passengers. Most of us have other people with access to their car that might potentially have had something in there they shouldn’t have. And then, of course, there are other things to be concerned about.
There are certain types of just random trash you might have in your car that could be potentially construed as evidence of a crime. So the best safety measure never consents to that search ever. Another thing to be aware of, if you are asked to get out of the car, again, shut up. Don’t talk to the cop and don’t argue with the cop and never resist. If they tell you you have to get out of the car, do so. If they ask you, “Can I search you?” or whatever. No, you refuse politely verbally. If the cop tries to search you anyway, you should never physically resist because if you do, you could get beaten or tased. And it’s dangerous. It’s not a good idea.
Now I want to talk about a special situation that could come up in Oklahoma, which is if you’re armed, that is you’re carrying a firearm. In that situation, the first opportunity you have when you talk to the officer, you are legally required to divulge the fact that you have a firearm on you and where it is. Now, in that situation, that does not mean you waive your right against self-incrimination nor does it mean that you are going to consent to a search.
That’s not what I’m saying. The way to handle that situation is you say to the officer, “Officer, I just wanted to let you know I am…” If you have the permit, you can say, “I’m a concealed carry permit holder.” Or if you’re not, you can say, “I am carrying, pursuant to Oklahoma’s constitutional carry laws, my firearm is on my hip or my firearm’s in my bag over there. My firearm’s on my shoulder,” if you have a shoulder holster. And then you ask them what they want to do about getting your wallet, registration, and whatnot.
And if you have the permit, you should hand it to them when you hand them your license and your proof of insurance. But if you are armed, you want to follow their instructions about what they want you to do about that weapon. I think it’s a judgment call. If the officer asks to disarm you, it’s a judgment call.
I’ve had that happen to me one time. I let the officer take the gun out of the holster himself. I would say that it’s probably a good idea not to argue with a cop while you’re armed. And if they ask for that, if they take that as an invitation to search, you can potentially address that later in court. It’s a lot better to deal with that and be in court than to risk getting yourself shot because it looked like you were reaching for your own gun. So that might be a reason to think carefully about how you respond if an officer asks if they can disarm you. How about leaving? When can you leave the situation? Let’s talk about that.
If an officer is ticketing you, if they indicate that they’re going to cite you, you should immediately upon receipt of the ticket ask, “Am I free to go?” The reason is this will establish that this is not a voluntary encounter and if they tell you no after that point, then you are getting into Miranda territory.
And also they’re going to have to justify why they’re continuing to detain you. Now, one thing I have seen from time to time in Oklahoma is officers that’ll try to engage a traffic stop in conversation while they get a canine unit there to do a dog sniff. Now, you should understand the dog sniff is not considered a search, but they do have to be reasonable about detaining you by the side of the road in order to perform the dog sniff.
So if the traffic stop has concluded, they’ve handed you your ticket and you ask, “Am I free to go, officer?” Then at that point, they have to have another reason to detain you if they’re going to try to get a dog there. So it’s a good idea to ask that question.
You might try asking that question shortly after the cop says, “Hey, do you know why I pulled you over?” “No, officer. I have no idea. Hey, am I being detained for something?” Again, establishing this is not a voluntary encounter and avoiding a problem where they can claim it’s a voluntary encounter and you stupidly acknowledged something that incriminated you or opened yourself up to a search or some other situation. So as soon as you reasonably can, ask specifically, “Am I free to go?” And if they say you are free to go, then you should immediately leave.
Don’t make small talk with the cop. Don’t let them try to make small talk with you. If they say you’re free to go, leave. Obviously don’t speed off. Leave safely. Don’t be a moron, but do leave. This is not the time to make nice with the cop. Get out of the situation so that they don’t have an opportunity to try to develop probable cause to search you or to try to mess with you on some other basis. If you were issued a ticket, sign the damn thing. When you sign a ticket, you’re not admitting guilt.
The signature accomplishes one thing, it’s basically what’s called a “personal recognizance bond.” What that is is it’s your promise to appear for court. If you don’t sign a ticket, you could be arrested because you’re refusing to sign a personal recognizance bond. They can take you into custody. So don’t be a dumb-ass and not sign the ticket. You’re not admitting to anything. You’re not waving any rights. You’re just avoiding a trip to the county jail.
So do sign the ticket. Don’t talk about the issue. And if you think the cop is wrong, don’t waste your breath arguing with them. Save it for court. One last thing I’m going to mention about that before I wrap up, don’t be disrespectful because I can tell you right now, cops will write that down on tickets.
They will make a note of who’s being an ass and it can, if you do need to go to court later, that will come up. So don’t be an ass. It’s not worth it. And also, you make it personal with a cop, which means that if you are going to fight it, they’re more likely to show up. So those are some good ground rules and pitfalls that you should be aware of when dealing with the police at a traffic stop. It’s not guaranteed to avoid a ticket or avoid a problem, but it reduces the chances of having a minor inconvenience turn into a huge hassle. If you have questions about any of that, you should go to makelaweasy.com and we’ll help you out.