Be polite, but know your rights

The fact (and fiction) of getting pulled over, what police can (and can’t) do



ALWAYS VIGILANT: Austin ISD Police car remaining on guard outside of McCallum. Although this car is mainly for show, police presence at McCallum is not. Photo by Tomas Marrero.

Tomas Marrero, staff reporter

As more and more McCallum students get their driver’s licenses as the year goes on, the likelihood of you or a friend getting pulled over by the police increases with it. There seems to be a general fear and lack of knowledge about what to do when this happens.
Students, as well as teachers, should know what limitations police officers have when conducting a traffic stop. Knowin

g the Bill of Rights and what privileges you have as a U.S. citizen is very useful in a traffic stop and important to know in general. Possibly more important is the responsibility of exercising them in a calm and collected manner. If you or a friend ever gets pulled over, here are some tips and advice for how to best handle the situation.

This article is by no means an excuse to be rude or belligerent towards police officers. There is a difference between exercising your rights properly and forcing your interpretation of the Bill of Rights in the face of police.

Take the classic example of “sovereign citizens” during a traffic stop. Sovereign citizens are a group that maintain they are completely above the U.S. government, including laws and currency. They only care about their own interpretation of laws and the constitution. This group insists that the “right to travel” is a constitutional right and therefore do not have to have a driver’s license. This imaginary right holds up in court just about as well as you’d expect. Don’t be like these people. Often times they can be rude and unnecessarily difficult to police, which oftentimes lands them in a worse situation than they were in when they were stopped.

Always be calm and respectful towards police. Many times being polite can get you out of a ticket or worse. But there is a fine line between being compliant and giving up your rights.

Always be calm and respectful towards police. Many times being polite can get you out of a ticket or worse. But there is a fine line between being compliant and giving up your rights.

A traffic stop is a perfect example. Driving is considered a privilege and not a right, so there are many exceptions to law that would not apply if an encounter occurs elsewhere. As a result, you should approach a traffic stop diplomatically. If an officer is attempting to pull you over, comply. This seems like a no-brainier, but some will argue a traffic stop is an illegal detention, which is simply untrue. An officer can pull you over for nearly anything, and failing to comply will almost certainly land you in jail. After you comply, many officers will ask you the question, “Do you know why I pulled you over today?” This question is designed to compel you to admit to whatever offense they suspect you of committing.
Even if you know you were speeding or whatever the case may be, it is a best practice to either deny any knowledge or answer the question with a question. For example, when asked the question “Do you know why I pulled you over today?” simply answer “Was it for speeding officer?”
Many people want to be reasonable and polite to police officers, but it is never in your interest to admit to a crime during a traffic stop. Some might still say that being cooperative is more important, but (a website providing free legal advice and help finding a lawyer) and many other sources disagree: “Never make any admissions regarding how you were driving, nor admit that you were speeding or committed any traffic violation. If you decide to fight or contest your ticket at a later date, admitting guilt will lessen your chances for a successful outcome.”
Sometimes it’s the case that officers have no evidence to actually write a ticket or make an arrest and will instead try to coax a confession out of you. The courts have upheld that police officers can lie to you with the intent of getting a confession, such as in Oregon v. Mathiason, 1977, where the police claimed they found fingerprints at the crime scene when they had not which compelled the suspect to admit to the crime.
The most important thing to remember if things take a turn for the worse during a traffic stop is to keep calm. Becoming angry or irritated only serves to escalate the situation. The First, Fourth, and Fifth amendments are your three new best friends in this situation. The First Amendment protects your right to free speech, including filming police officers. In general, filming police officers is a good idea. Even though many police officers have body cameras, they can turn it on and off, and footage can sometimes be hard to obtain after the fact. Courts have consistently held up the public’s right to film police, making it a constitutionally protected action. In Glik v. Cunniffe, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the right of citizens to film police under the First Amendment.
The Fourth Amendment also protects a citizen by pr

oviding protection from unlawful search and seizure. To conduct a search, a police officer must have probable cause, a warrant, permission from the person who owns the place or thing, or make an arrest. Essentially, they must have concrete evidence that a crime has been committed to obtain a search warrant or claim probable cause. This restriction only applies to situations where people have a “reasonable expectation to privacy.” Essentially, a situation where a judge would believe a person to have privacy, like in a public restroom or in one’s home.
Many warrantless searches do occur, and there are rules for conducting them. Police officers may conduct a warrantless search if the owner has been arrested, if the officer believes the integrity of the evidence is at risk, if the owner has given consent, if evidence is in plain view, or if the officer has probable cause. Although some police departments have a policy in place requiring officers to tell the suspect what crime they suspect them of committing or why they are being searched, but they are not required by law to share this.

Warrants and warrantless searches generally apply to vehicles or buildings. Police, however, do not need a warrant to search your person. If an officer has a reasonable suspicion that a crime has been, is being, or will be committed, they can search your person. At this point, they also may legally ask to identify you. Unless you are in a vehicle, an officer must have reasonable suspicion to demand identification. This is a much looser definition and courts have consistently upheld broader interpretations of reasonable suspicion.

Once an officer has a reasonable suspicion, they can perform what’s called a terry frisk. This is essentially a pat down if the officer believes you may have weapons on your person or present bodily harm in some way. This right, however, does not give them the authority to search your car or other belongings not on your person.

In a search situation, it is important to make it clear you do not consent to any form of search. Even if you have “nothing to hide,” things might be in your car that you may not know about. Maybe that illicit substance really was your friend’s, but at the end of the day, you are responsible for what is in your car.

Being an informed citizen can be the most valuable tool you have. Just as police can weaponize intimidation tactics, a well-informed citizen has the tools to defend themselves.

In many cases, if an officer wants to perform a search, they will. It is imperative you do not interfere with that search in any way. This can be considered obstruction of justice or obstructing a police officer, both of which are felonies. If you believe an officer’s search to be unconstitutional, contest it in court. Any evidence seized illegally cannot be used in court, including “fruit from the poisonous tree,” which includes any evidence discovered along with the original inadmissible evidence.

With your rights comes the necessity to exercise them. Allowing police to conduct searches as they please, although sometimes easier, slowly erodes the public’s rights. Stay calm, respectful, and polite but never willingly give up your civil liberties.
Being an informed citizen can be the most valuable tool you have. Just as police can weaponize intimidation tactics, a well-informed citizen has the tools to defend themselves.