A police officer pulling you over in your vehicle is intimidating. Think of the armed officer, flashing lights, flashlight, badge, and being on the side of the road. What you say and do can place you on a journey through the criminal justice system with long-term consequences.
Grounds for pulling over
Police do not have the unlimited discretion to pull drivers over. They may stop a vehicle if:
- The police run a license plate through their database and the motorist’s license is suspended or invalid.
- Police observe a broken headlight, lapsed vehicle registration, defective exhaust system or other problem with the vehicle.
- Police have a reasonable suspicion or a good reason to believe that the driver or a vehicle occupant committed a crime. Police have reasonable suspicion if they have specific, objective and explainable facts that a crime was committed based upon known facts and their training and experience.
Pretextual stops, in which police use a minor violation to target a driver for another reason have been in the news. Washington’s state constitution prohibits pretextual stops.
Before they stop a vehicle, police must have an actual and independent belief that the traffic stop is necessary for public safety.
Police may still investigate an unrelated crime if they discover evidence of that crime after the stop. This occurs, for example, when police stop a motorist for driving on a suspended or revoked license and then arrest them for driving while intoxicated.
Washington law requires drivers to provide their license, vehicle registration and proof of insurance during a traffic stop. Failure to present these documents is grounds for arrest.
Police may not ask passengers for identification unless they have a reason to believe that the passenger committed a crime or violation.
Drivers do not have to consent to a police search of their car. Refusal should be made clearly but politely.
If the driver denies consent, police must show probable cause and obtain a search warrant from a judge. They may impound the vehicle while waiting for the issuance of the warrant.
But there are situations where police may search a vehicle without consent or a warrant. Police can search the vehicle to make a list of its contents when the vehicle is impounded to a towing company.
Police may also search any place in the vehicle where a seated occupant can access a weapon to keep a person from grabbing a weapon. This is similar to a Terry stop frisk, in which police may pat down a suspect for weapons in a high-risk situation. But police cannot open the glove compartment, closed storage areas, or closed bags without consent or a warrant.
Attorneys can help protect a person’s rights beginning with their first encounter with police. They can contest illegally seized evidence.