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What are my rights when being pulled over by the police for no reason?
October 30, 2007 10:13 AM   Subscribe

What are my rights when being pulled over by the police for no reason?

On two separate occasions, over the past 2 months, I've been pulled over by local police for no apparent reason. Both times they've asked for my license and registration, returned them to me after about 5-10 minutes, and let me go without any ticket/warning. This past week my mother was pulled over in the same manner (different car). She mentioned it to our neighbor, and he reported a similar incident.

We live in an area of Philadelphia, PA that isn't too good, but that shouldn't be an excuse. They should at least have a reason to pull me over before doing so. I haven't asked any of the officers to explain themselves, because I fear the Dave Chappelle scenario (cop sprinkles crack on you). Can anyone shed some light on what type of rights I have/what I can do about this? Should I write a letter to the mayor? Police commissioner?

Thanks for your help.

-- Just to clear up some potential racial profiling responses:

-My mother and I are Hispanic, but don't necessarily look it.
-My neighbor is African-American.
posted by hcastro to Law & Government (47 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
The right to breathe a deep sigh of relief when they let you go without any ticket/warning.

And the right to closely analyze factors other than race that could be giving the police reasonable suspicion to pull you over, as well as things that may be giving them a reasonable pretext to base the stop on. For example, is there anything hanging from you rear-view mirror? In some states, that is enough for them to pull you over. Is the car full of garbage? Clutter? What visual cues may you or others be sending to police that would make them think that pulling you over might be fruitful?

Because even if racial profiling is going on, which it should not, in my opinion, the police don't typically pull people over because of race alone. Find the other factors and eliminate them.
posted by The World Famous at 10:18 AM on October 30, 2007


It happens all the time in the city where my parents live. It seems like if you drive a run down car or if your plates aren't registered to the city, you have a much higher chance of being pulled over.

I even had a friend from another city who visited his girlfriend at night, and he always got a police "escort" (no lights) to the freeway onramp. This was a tinted Mercedes.
posted by mphuie at 10:24 AM on October 30, 2007


The amount of probable cause needed to pull you over is pretty tiny, just wavering a little bit on the road is enough. They have the right to identify you and look at your license and registration, and that's about it. You don't have to speak to them beyond that, and at any point you can ask if you are being detained; if they say no, you can leave. However, I don't know that I'd suggest that course of action in most situations.
posted by craven_morhead at 10:24 AM on October 30, 2007


What did the officer say to you, your mother, and neighbor?
posted by desjardins at 10:26 AM on October 30, 2007


Is your name noticeably Hispanic? My mother is white, but she took my dad's Hispanic last name and has gotten pulled over several times for no reason. It is quite a scary experience--my sympathies. Did the cops make any comments at all, other than requesting your license and registration?
posted by eralclare at 10:26 AM on October 30, 2007


You have the right to refuse a search of the vehicle, and to refuse everything that the officer phrases as a request. For instance, if the officer says, "Will you get out of the car and open the trunk, please," you have the right to say "No, I won't."
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:33 AM on October 30, 2007 [3 favorites]


If it were me, I would complain to two people: my representative on the city council (or the equivalent body in Philadelphia) and my representatives in the Pennsylvania state legislature. Both offices should have staff specifically tasked with dealing with constituent services. Get anybody else who has experienced the same problem to do the same. It wouldn't take more than a couple similar complaints to prompt some kind of action, I wouldn't think.

You could also complain to your Congressional representatives, but IMO it is much less likely that action would result.
posted by jtfowl0 at 10:33 AM on October 30, 2007


@The World Famous - I understand minimizing the factors, but this has happened to 3 different cars on 4 separate occasions. None of the cars are luxury material, but I don't want to go out and buy an Infiniti G37 to stop from being pulled over for no reason (or do I?).

Not sure what they've asked others, but I've gotten the "Is this your car?" question both times. The question itself is amusing, because the license and registration will reveal that.
posted by hcastro at 10:34 AM on October 30, 2007


Limited, but perhaps helpful
ACLU bust card.
posted by phoenixy at 10:38 AM on October 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


I haven't asked any of the officers to explain themselves, because I fear the Dave Chappelle scenario (cop sprinkles crack on you).

I would suggest you a) get over this fear and b) formulate a non-threatening, non-confrontational approach to your question. "Hey pig, WTF?" will be sure to invite a bad situation. So take another tack. Be polite. "Thanks for your time, officer. Say, I'm curious about something. I've been stopped X times now in this neighborhood and let go Y times without any ticket. Is there something I should know about? Is there, like, a crack house nearby or something? Is there something I should be on the watch for?"
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:40 AM on October 30, 2007 [12 favorites]


As I'm sure you know, we're all a bit touchy in Philly about crime right now, and police are pretty defensive about their rep. I don't know that writing to the Commissioner himself will yield any results, as he's retiring in January. Trying very, very, very hard to not editorialize unnecessarily here.

Perhaps a call and follow-up letter to your local precinct to inquire about this. Ask if there was a crime being investigated or a new program in place -- as regular law-abiding citizens calling with safety concerns. Taking the "you violated my rights" angle will probably be more likely to get a curt "no, we didn't. Buh-bye."

They're probably going to give you the "similar car to that used in a crime" scenario. Once they pull you over, they have to say something, so they pull out some stock questions to determine that there isn't any obvious wrongdoing going on.
posted by desuetude at 10:43 AM on October 30, 2007


I'd try to just think about it positively--1, I didn't get a ticket--2, they didn't harass me, just checked my info--3, if they pulled someone over that was violent or on drugs they might end up making me safer.

My sister used to live in Philadelphia and she said our insurance company told her that Philly has the highest auto insurance premiums in the country, as well as the highest number of uninsured motorists.

So maybe they're cracking down on the uninsured in an effort to make the roads safer (i.e. get the terrible drivers off the road that can't afford to pay to keep their car legally on the road).
posted by rocket_johnny at 10:44 AM on October 30, 2007


Seconding Cool Papa Bell.

I think police have a tough job, and in bad neighborhoods whether or not people want to admit it, they use the fishing approach. Pull someone over and there is a good chance they have a warrant, drugs, are drunk/high whatever. And I think that often in bad neighborhoods people don't speak up in a constructive way.

BUT - if, the next time you are pulled over...go through the motions, and then ask the officer whats going on in the neighborhood and such then at least that officer will start to see you as Mr. Concerned Citizen instead of Potential Scumbag Scofflaw. After that happens a few times with a few different officers maybe you won't get pulled over again.

When you just sit there and wait for him to hand back your licence the officer is probably thinking that you were nervous and it was another close call and thank god you didn't have your satchel of crack with you. In short, he cast his line but didn't catch anything.
posted by ian1977 at 10:51 AM on October 30, 2007


I live in a transitional neighborhood in DC and have been stopped a few times for license-and-registration checkpoints. When it happened the second time in a week I wasn't in any hurry so I asked the officer at my window what the deal was. He said it does bother some people, but somehow those checkpoints were surprisingly effective at (1) rounding up people with open warrants (of whom there are a large number that pass through my neighborhood), and (2) making the police presence in the neighborhood very obvious, reducing other crimes of opportunity nearby.

It's a hassle, but if you're driving a car they don't need much cause to stop you, and they don't need any cause if it's a checkpoint that targets everybody equally. They checked turn signals and brake lights on me at one stop while they were running my registration, then very politely sent me on my way. I make small talk, but then I'm clearly one of the gentrifiers in my neighborhood so if they *are* profiling they've probably already decided I'm not a risk, so I don't know if that will work for you. If it's happening a lot, I think it's pretty reasonable to say that to the officer, though ("Hey, this is the third or fourth time I've been stopped in a month. Is there something going on in the neighborhood I should be worried about?" [on preview, I see that Cool Papa Bell said the same thing]) -- but you might want to wait until they've handed you back your license.
posted by fedward at 10:51 AM on October 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


Bay Area Police Watch "know your rights" pamphlet (pdf). Non-pdf version.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:55 AM on October 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


your car probably looks like one they're looking for. if they don't have the plate numbers, they have the right to stop every car that matches the description.

of course, the cop should tell you this--that's a public relations issue.
posted by thinkingwoman at 11:00 AM on October 30, 2007


I used to get pulled over whenever I drove my brother around. Without going into more detail, he sort of "looks" suspicious because of his ethnicity and how he acts and dresses. I'd get pulled over when having him as a passenger but not get pulled over when driving by myself. The exchange with the policeman would go something like this:

Police: May I see your license and registration, please?
Me: Sure. Here you go.
Police: [Eyeing my brother and glancing around the car]
Police: Where were you two going?
Me: We are going home.
Police: Ok. Thanks [starts to back away]
Me: Excuse me officer. Why were we stopped?
Police: One of your tail-lights is cracked. You should get it checked out.
Me: Thanks Officer. I will.
posted by vacapinta at 11:34 AM on October 30, 2007


Flex Your Rights, watch the video.
posted by caddis at 11:34 AM on October 30, 2007


hcastro, I wouldn't worry too much about the Dave Chappelle situation. If you're dead afraid of them trying to pin something on you, give them the easy out when asking:

"I'm sorry, officer. Was I going too fast?"

or

"I'm sorry, officer. Is one of my lights out?"

Either way, just ask.
posted by koeselitz at 11:35 AM on October 30, 2007


Despite what others may have learned in constitutional law or on ACLU bust cards, you have no rights whatsoever when being pulled over by the cops.

Sure you could fight it out in court and probably win, but you don't want to do that? Be assertive, be polite, and let them do whatever they want to do. Don't drive with drugs, drug like paraphernalia and keep your car reasonably clean.

I say this as someone who lived in a transitional neighborhood and found the best way to keep the cops off your back is to give them no excuses. It is pragmatic. The libertarian inside of me wants to say fight the power, but that's unrealistic, unless you have a devotion to doing so.

Really, if you're driving through a questionable neighborhood they don't want to bust you. They really want to bust the drug addled prostitute being driven by her pimp. Keep this in mind, they aren't going to jail random people when they'd rather get what they're looking for.
posted by geoff. at 11:36 AM on October 30, 2007


Jay-Z answers this ask.me quite comprehensively in the lyrics to 99 problems:

The year is '94 and in my trunk is raw
In my rear view mirror is the mother fuckin' law
I got two choices y'all pull over the car or
Bounce on the devil put the pedal to the floor
Now I ain't tryin to see no highway chase with jake
Plus I got a few dollars I can fight the case
So I pull over to the side of the road
I heard "Son do you know what I'm stoppin' you for?"
"Cause I'm young and I'm black and my hat's real low
Do I look like a mind reader sir, I don't know
Am I under arrest or should I guess some mo'?"
"Well you was doin' fifty five in a fifty four"
"License and registration and step out of the car"
Are you carryin' a weapon on you I know a lot of you are"
"I ain't steppin' out of shit all my papers legit
"Do you mind if I look 'round the car a little bit?"
Well my glove compartment is locked so is the trunk and the back
And I know my rights so you gon' need a warrant for that
"Aren't you sharp as a tack? are some type of lawyer or something?"
"Or somebody important or somethin?"
"Nah, I ain't pass the bar but I know a little bit
Enough that you won't illegally search my shit
"Well see how smart you are when the K-9's come"

posted by roofus at 11:38 AM on October 30, 2007 [9 favorites]


Be assertive, be polite, and let them do whatever they want to do.

Not whatever they want, only whatever they want which is legal. Do not consent to a search if there is any remote possibility of them finding something. Remember these lines and use them when appropriate:

"Am I free to go?"
"I do not consent to any searches."
"I have nothing to say before consulting with my attorney."
posted by caddis at 11:46 AM on October 30, 2007


Thanks for all the help and advice so far. Just to be clear, I wasn't serious about the Chappelle scenario. I don't necessarily believe they're going to sprinkle crack on me, but there have been incidents in the past where power was abused.

@ClaudiaCenter - Thanks. I printed the pamphlet.
@roofus - I know the song all too well. However, I don't have a few dollars to fight the case.
posted by hcastro at 11:52 AM on October 30, 2007


I wasn't serious about the Chappelle scenario.

It happens, not as often as they lie about how the suspect resisted arrest (isn't it amazing that every suspect arrested on otherwise weak charges resisted arrest?), probably because it takes more malice and advance planning. That is why you are respectful, even when they are not. You don't want to give them any reason to do something bad to you.
posted by caddis at 12:10 PM on October 30, 2007


if the officer says, "Will you get out of the car and open the trunk, please," you have the right to say "No, I won't."

I the US, you do have to get out, but you absolutely do not have give permission to open the trunk.

And, to clear up a misconception that seems to be unfortunately common, in the US, refusing to let your stuff be searched is not probable cause to search you. Say no. No, no, no.
posted by cmiller at 12:26 PM on October 30, 2007


You have the right to refuse a search of the vehicle, and to refuse everything that the officer phrases as a request. For instance, if the officer says, "Will you get out of the car and open the trunk, please," you have the right to say "No, I won't."
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:33 AM on October 30


I would strongly suggest that if a police officer tells you to get out of your vehicle, that you do so. You have the right to refuse a search, but if a cop tells you to get out of your car, don't give him a reason to swab your eyes with pepper spray, or shoot you with a taser or his firearm. Better, more well-connected people than you have died for failing to comply with that request.

When you leave a encounter with law enforcement not having been beaten, arrested, or killed, thank your lucky stars and go home and hug your kids. When it's your word against a cop's, your rights mean little in court and nothing on the street.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 12:32 PM on October 30, 2007


When you leave a encounter with law enforcement not having been beaten, arrested, or killed, thank your lucky stars and go home and hug your kids. When it's your word against a cop's, your rights mean little in court and nothing on the street.

This is not true and this take-it-and-smile attitude helps nobody.

I was on a jury where some men were charged with assaulting a policeman. In the end, it was their word against the policeman as to who "started it" and who was just defending themselves. The accused men were black and the cop was white, even. But we, the jury, delivered a verdict of "not guilty." The cop wasn't credible.
posted by vacapinta at 12:45 PM on October 30, 2007


It's somewhat tangential, but to weigh-in on the search consent issue, this is a point worth considering:

Just because you don't have to consent to a search doesn't mean that it's never a good idea.

After all, if you don't have anything illegal with you, it can be orders of magnitude faster to just let them take a look, find nothing, and move on to the next car... what you really have to ask yourself is this: is the cop looking for something specific, or is he just looking to look.

If it's something specific, and he really thinks you have it, refusing a search can lead to you being detained while the cop gets a warrant... and if you've got nothing worth hiding, is that really worth your time?

Odds are that this isn't going to happen in most cases, but it's something else to factor in.
posted by toomuchpete at 1:07 PM on October 30, 2007


One question: Do you have ANY stickers on your car? At all? Because when I had stickers on my car, for about 10 years, I would get pulled over at random.

I also had hot pink hair.

I also had never been arrested, had two degrees and a really great job and lived in a nice neighborhood and owned my house. But the cops can't see that. They see these things, because I finally asked:

1. Anything on your car that draws the eye. That's a loud paint job (yellow, red, custom color). That's a sticker, and DARE stickers and "I support the police" type stickers will get pulled over more frequently because the police assume it's reverse psychology. That's also if you have custom license plates because cops notice that stuff.

2. The way you are driving. If you weave, drive on the phone, or change lanes without signaling in a bad neighborhood, they look at that as a chance to search you.

3. The way you look. If you are anything other than a clean-cut white male or an older white woman, forget it. My boyfriend got followed around by a cop the other day for a while and he harassed him, wanting to know why he was driving slowly around the bad neighborhood and going to different doors. Duh, he's a REAL ESTATE AGENT. NOT A DRUG DEALER. but the cop said, "you don't LOOK like a real estate agent..." yeah, I guess because he has a mustache?

I have asked the cops numerous times about getting pulled over and frankly, these three things are the most common. They do judge by looks, and it's better to have no distinguishing characteristics to your car and yourself.

I'm a lot happier with my sticker-free car and brown hair, seriously.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 1:23 PM on October 30, 2007


Do not consent to a search if there is any remote possibility of them finding something.

It is intuitively obvious that they cannot find anything if they do not search. Probability : 0.

Although the odds are against your friend/mother/yogi bear/OJ/me planting weed/a gun/bodies/fireworks in your trunk, it can be said the probability is non-zero.

Thus, your probability of getting arrested for something - yours or not - that the police find in your trunk is always lower if you refuse a search than if you consent.

Toomuchpete may believe you might get moving faster if you agree and get it over with (I happen to disagree with this assumption, but whatever) but I will comment that with the current drug confiscation laws you want to avoid getting your ride swept up at all costs. Unlike criminal charges you do not have a presumption of innocence. Those horrid laws alone are enough reason to never consent to any search.
posted by phearlez at 1:41 PM on October 30, 2007 [2 favorites]


It is intuitively obvious that they cannot find anything if they do not search. Probability : 0.

Although the odds are against your friend/mother/yogi bear/OJ/me planting weed/a gun/bodies/fireworks in your trunk, it can be said the probability is non-zero.


Beautifully stated.
posted by hcastro at 2:13 PM on October 30, 2007


Not the same thing but some of the ideas apply here. I like to speed, always have but I hate getting tickets. I only get pulled over for speeding every other year or so but have avoided getting a single ticket by:

1) Not going too far over the limit ( <> 2) Not speeding in school/hospital/construction zones/hazardous conditions
3) Never arguing (I sometimes ask questions)
4) Always, always, always being cheerful and appreciative of the officer's work.

I see their job as trying to catch people like me and every now and then they do but I give the officer every opportunity to let me go without a ticket and they always take that road when it's open to them.

Showing a little appreciation has astonishing results. These people get hassled all day every day. They absolutely do not expect anyone to smile and be grateful they are on the road doing a difficult job so when you send a little human kindness they can't help but return the favor.
posted by trinity8-director at 4:28 PM on October 30, 2007


Wow, that formatting sure went to hell. Should read:

1) Not going too far over the limit ( less than 10 over, usually)
2) Not speeding in school/hospital/construction zones/hazardous conditions
posted by trinity8-director at 4:29 PM on October 30, 2007


It is intuitively obvious that they cannot find anything if they do not search. Probability : 0.

Actually, I think there is still a nonzero chance that they may "find something" even if they do not search.
posted by equalpants at 5:13 PM on October 30, 2007


Do not consent to a search if there is any remote possibility of them finding something

Do not consent to a search period. This is not about whether they will find something. It is about your rights. You don't have to be pugnacious about it. If they really want to search, tell them you'll be happy to cooperate with a proper warrant.

I really urge everyone to watch the Flex Your Rights video, even though it's nearly an hour. Really worth it. If you are cheerful, polite and maintain your composure you can avoid trouble. While you may not know your rights, you can bet the cops do, as they take courses in it. Therefore insisting on your rights is not telling them anything they don't know.

I get pulled over all the frickin' time. I assume it's the anti-Bush bumper stickers and the bright pink hair coupled with the fact that I work in the rich burbs but don't drive a rich burbs car. (So the "older white woman" protection only goes so far, unicorno_t_c)
posted by nax at 6:04 PM on October 30, 2007


NAX

I'm sorry, many cops do NOT have a proper grasp on our individual rights. Thats one reason they get stomped on all the time.

If you WANT to allow their request for a search, do so.
If you DONT want to all their request for a search, don't.

Know that either option depending on circumstances could help or hurt you.
posted by crewshell at 6:37 PM on October 30, 2007


crewshell: then let's educate them. Do not consent to a search. Do not give them probable cause for a search. If they search anyway, your clear statement that you did not consent will help you if you end up getting arrested.

But, yeah, I hear you. If you check responses to other questions you'll note that I have this unfortunate tendency to assume that people are not complete idiots. My husband thinks its cute, but sometimes wonders if I should be allowed to cross the street on my own.
posted by nax at 5:08 AM on October 31, 2007


the bumper stickers are a definite signal to cops. I have a friend who drove a Volvo station wagon. Could not be more boring. Did not speed. Had a well maintained car. But that FREE THE WEST MEMPHIS 3 bumpersticker meant he got pulled over every time he got on I5.

Do not consent to a search. Do not consent to a search. The logic of "well, if you're not hiding anything, why not let them search" is ASTOUNDING to me. Do your rights not mean anything to you?

No wonder the country's going to hell in a handbasket.

Anyone who thinks that cooperating with the cops by letting them search their car probably also thinks that if they are innocent they could have a little chat with the cops without their attorney present.

I am a very law abiding citizen. But if the cops turned up at my door without a warrant there is no hope in hell of me allowing them inside. If I ever was asked down to the station house for a chat, I would not even discuss the weather without my attorney being present. With all due respect, if you think you are "helping" the cops by doing so, you have watched too many Law & Order reruns.

I am scrupulously courteous to our law enforcement officials. But I am equally scrupulously protective of my civil rights. And I wish everyone else would be as well.
posted by micawber at 7:50 AM on October 31, 2007


With all due respect, if you think you are "helping" the cops by doing so, you have watched too many Law & Order reruns.

Or haven't watched/paid attention to enough of them. Why, oh why, do people in police custody talk? Because they don't know better, and when (if) the police mirandize them, they don't actually believe that the warning is true.
posted by The World Famous at 9:56 AM on October 31, 2007


A few additions to this thread:

1. When making a statement regarding your rights, make the statement as simple as possible, with no hedging:

YES: I do not give you permission to look in my trunk.
NO: No, I'd really rather you didn't look in the trunk, because it's my right to say no, not that I've got something to hide, I don't, and not because I don't trust you, but I might have dirty laundry or something in there. So, yeah, let's not do that.

2. You don't need to tell them why. Period.

3. If you are ever questioned and given your Miranda rights, this is especially true:

YES: I will not answer any more questions until my attorney is present.

(And then keep repeating this whenever they ask another question. Do not even answer questions that seem innocent, like what is your birthdate. Just keep repeating this. Ignore them when they tell you it's faster/easier/better for you if you're actually innocent. Really, it's not. Period.)

NO: I'd rather speak with an attorney first.
NO: Should I have my attorney here?
NO: I'd like my parents here please.
NO: I think I should have an attorney here.
NO: Does my attorney know I am here?
NO: I don't have anything to say to you.
NO: I don't want to answer your questions.
NO: anything other than the simple declaration that you will not answer questions until your attorney is present

It's all rather silly, but the courts look to how clear your statement is, and the cops can point to any wiggle room in what you've said as an excuse to keep going and say that you failed to assert your rights to an attorney.
posted by Capri at 1:23 PM on October 31, 2007


Actually, I think there is still a nonzero chance that they may "find something" even if they do not search.

True, but in life we must content ourselves to control the things we can. If you find the evil cop who will plant something on you no matter what, then you can at the very least make their story less plausible by not providing them access to the more concealed area of your car in the trunk.

It's also worth mentioning that they don't even have to find something or plant something to make providing them with access a bad idea. With additional access they have an increased ability to mistakenly think they see or smell something that would provide them probable cause to search further. So your effort to "get it over with" more rapidly causes it to escalate to tearing your car apart, calling in the dogs, being breathalizered, etc etc etc.

Nax's suggestion of watching Flex Your Rights is an excellent one. It's a good site and a watchable video that isn't too cheeseball. The full video is on YouTube here. The only thing in it that may be an issue is that it was made pre-Hiibel and might incorrectly claim you don't have to provide ID to an officer when on foot. (The precise guidelines are inexact at this point but unless you want to be a test case over precisely what constitutes cause you probably want to comply)

Capri speaks very clearly but I'd add that the "If you are ever questioned and given your Miranda rights" isn't even necessary - you can refuse to answer any questions without access to council even before being Mirandized. The Flex your Rights site makes mention of the book

I'd also comment that there's a false dichotomy that some people assume between what myself, capri, nax, etc are saying and what trinity8-director has said. I am never anything but polite and respectful in my dealings with the law - as happily rare as they are - and never fail to say sir and ma'am. Despite what you might see here and on other internet sites it's perfectly possible to say "no" with courtesy and a smile.
posted by phearlez at 7:15 AM on November 1, 2007


In my experience, and talking to many cop friends over the years, it's my feeling that with very few exceptions the vast majority of cops are not looking to give you trouble. However, they are understandably suspicious of anyone who doesn't "fit" in a situation or anyone who gives them any reason (at all) to suspect something fishy is going on. Why? Because their instincts are often right. Also, they play the odds and go fishing. All of these reasons to pull someone over can appear to you to be "no reason." Lots of crimes are discovered and criminals arrested because of judiciously nosy cops.

A couple personal experience examples...

I (white bread and clean cut as they come) was pulled over driving a new sports car north of LA many years ago. Cop slowed down in front of us, then slid around behind and stuck to my rear bumper for a mile or three, then pulled us over. Cop #1 gave me several sobriety tests which I passed, then insisted that I or my passenger threw a cigarette butt out the window. Nope; don't smoke and ashtray was clean. Said I was weaving -- I said (politely as possible) "probably a little bit, it's a new car and you were on my bumper." This went on for about 10-15 minutes until his partner said "alright, okay" and cop #1 went back to the cruiser. Cop #2 says, look, 19 times out of 20 if we pull over this car in this area, you're going to be doing something you shouldn't. Sorry for the trouble and have a nice night.

More recently, in the midwest, I've been pulled over a few times between midnight and 3 AM, for no apparent reason except that it's late. I hear things like "your tires touched the line, so I thought I'd check to make sure you were okay. You had anything to drink tonight?" Nope, maybe a little tired. "Okay, drive safe."

Sitting in the car in a parking lot of some place that's closed, looking at papers or talking with someone, killing time, cops have pulled up and asked "everything okay and where you headed when you get back on the road?" Yeah, just doing this thing I'm doing then headed to that place. "Okay, then. Have a nice night."

The point is, they're not stupid, and they're probably not singling you out for some harassment campaign. (Unless of course, they have reason to believe you in particular are doing something wrong.) Normally it's just a matter of a kind-of-but-not-quite random check. Look at it this way, they're keeping things safer for you and your family by putting themselves in harm's way. Part of that protection is checking to see what's up with that car, or that guy over there.

Just because you don't have to cooperate, doesn't mean you shouldn't. It's unnerving to be stopped, but unless there's some reason to be worried that they'll find something amiss, you shouldn't be worried. (On the other hand, if there is something to worry about, then they're doing their job by sniffing it out and charging you.)

In the very unlikely event you've got a bad cop on the beat, you're pretty well hosed anyway. Know your rights, but acting like a jerk will only make it worse. Lawyer up and do that thing with the courts.

Bottom line, they're doing their jobs and you shouldn't worry. It's a good thing.
posted by mumeishi at 6:18 PM on November 1, 2007


I get a good chuckle out of these "do your rights mean nothing to you" people.

Listen... it's a right because I can do with it as I please.

Having some blowhard tell me to never consent to a search is really no different than having some other blowhard tell me I should always consent if I have nothing to hide.

The bottom line is that this is a choice. You have the right to refuse a search if you want to. My point is simply that there are a lot of situations in which a law abiding citizen might WANT to waive that right.

Having the right and knowing how to exercise it are important, but so is knowing when it's going to cause you more time or trouble than it's worth.

Just because I let the cops look in my trunk doesn't mean I don't value my rights, it means that I've contemplated the situation and made a conscious decision to show the officer that what he's looking for is not present.


Also, this: "If they really want to search, tell them you'll be happy to cooperate with a proper warrant."... yeah, all well and good, but for the passenger compartment of the vehicle they don't need a warrant (unless state law says so). (IANAL)
posted by toomuchpete at 2:02 PM on November 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


but for the passenger compartment of the vehicle they don't need a warrant

Yes, yes they do need a warrant to search your vehicle without your permission. They can look in through the windows, but they do not have the right to enter the passenger compartment and look through it.
posted by caddis at 2:20 PM on November 4, 2007


(IANAL)

No, they don't. See Carroll v. U.S., 267 U.S. 132 (1925), which established an exception to the warrant requirement for vehicles.

They need probable cause to search the passenger compartment (the passengers themselves is different), but not a warrant.
posted by toomuchpete at 4:19 PM on November 6, 2007 [1 favorite]


Well, I thought that went without saying as my response was to your blanket statement that they do not need one. The basic rule is that a warrant is needed, but yes there are exceptions to that rule. If they have probable cause, such as they see contraband in plain view, they can search. If they impound the vehicle, such as because the driver is under arrest or it is improperly registered, then they can perform an inventory search, which if you are at all suspicious will be quite thorough. There may be other narrow exceptions. I am not a criminal constitutional law expert, and neither are most people stopped, or even cops. It is sufficient to know your general rights and never give permission to search if you have anything to hide, let the experts hammer it out later. It's only when you think that you don't have anything to hide that you have to make a decision, then bam they find that roach that your kid's good for nothing friend left in the ashtray in the back seat and it's off to jail for you, your car is taken via civil forfeiture and you spend ten grand on lawyers beating a bad drug rap.
posted by caddis at 8:06 PM on November 6, 2007


Well, the blanket statement is correct. The cops simply do not need a warrant to search (the passenger compartment of) your vehicle.

They need probable cause, and that's a pretty trivial thing to make up, should a cop be inclined to do that.

People who think they have more rights than they do can get themselves into some trouble.

But my point is simply that it's not necessarily a bad idea to allow a search, and trying to shame people into exercising their rights is no different than trying to shame them into not exercising them. The benefit of a freedom or right is in being able to exercise it when you choose and waive it when you choose. A "right" that can't be waived is really not a right at all.
posted by toomuchpete at 8:47 PM on November 7, 2007


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