Footnote: Even if you aren't disabled, being pulled over by the police can be a nerve-wracking experience. If you are living with a disability or chronic illness, this advice may help you avoid spending a night in jail - or worse - as a result of a simple mistake. My goal is to help LAW ABIDING citizens - not to help anyone get out of a traffic citation that they deserve.
How to behave during a Traffic Stop
Part One: Setting up for Success by being prepared:
Before you even see the cop in your rear-view mirror - my goal is to try to adjust your perception of police officers, why they pull cars over, and why they might be stopping you.
By accepting that being pulled over is just a part of driving, rather than believing it will NEVER happen to you - you better prepare yourself for the day you find yourself being stopped. Instead of telling yourself that you are a PERFECT driver, admit that on a daily basis, we all make mistakes, and some times we're the unlucky one who gets spotted when we've broken the rules. Also - it's important to realize that police officers conduct traffic stops for a MULTITUDE of problems, and not all of them are because they witnessed you committing a driving infraction. By preparing yourself from the reality that you WILL one day be pulled over by police, you are already setting yourself up to succeed.
One of the best things you can do to avoid a traffic ticket is to be follow the law! That means having your vehicle registered, insured, inspected (if your state requires it), and having proof of all those things. This also means carrying your disabled parking placard - and the ID card that goes with it from the DMV, plus having your license on you, every time you operate your vehicle. Know what your state's laws are - and make sure all your paperwork is EASY to find, up to date (throw away the last ten years of registrations - it's not needed and it's only going to get in your way of finding the CURRENT one). Check your paperwork every few months, and know when your license, registration and insurance cards expire - even if it means keeping a post-in on the outside of the glove box that will remind you when to change these documents!
Next- realize that while "normal" people tend to think of being pulled over as being a hugely traumatic experience - to a police officer, traffic stops are often just a way of communicating with drivers. We don't have walke-talkies, and if you did something wrong, we can't call your cell phone and remind you not to blow that stop sign tomorrow. It isn't necessarily about about writing tickets, or lecturing you and NO normal healthy police officer does traffic stops with the intention of causing fear- It's literally the only way to tell a driver to slow down - or sometimes more specifically; "Hey, back there, we have had a lot of residents complaining about drivers failing to slow down, so we're pulling folks over to let them know that they missed the speed limit changes" - I agree that NO ONE likes to see the red and blues in their rear-view mirror, but at the same time - I hope these tips ENSURE that you don't actually receive a ticket.
Sadly, some people take things very personally and give the officer an attitude the second they are pulled over -and while many officers are calm, fair, reasonable people - it's easy to see why they'd turn around and write-out a ticket to someone who is rude or nasty to them, even if originally they'd only stopped to give a verbal warning. No one likes to be yelled at, called names or verbally abused, and in society these days, officers are more aware then ever of the danger they face during every traffic stop. Don't give an officer ANY REASON to think you may want to harm them. No matter how angry or upset you are- the side of the road is NOT the place to show that.
MOST police officers are already NINETY PERCENT sure that they are writing a ticket VS giving a warning, at the time the stop is conducted. So often - your following these tips could literally be the thing that saves you from a citation - or - your negative behavior could totally change an otherwise forgiving officer's formerly calm and peaceful mind, We (police officers) call those citations "contempt of cop" tickets - as in - the law you broke wasn't so much the problem, but the attitude you gave the cop WAS. I'm not saying it's right, but it's VERY common. It pays to be polite to the police, even if you don't believe you've done anything wrong.
Part Two: Be Genuine & Polite - Anything Less is Asking for Trouble.
Sadly, a lot of people go into situations PRESUMING police are going to ticket or arrest them, and they end up acting in a way that basically ensures that IS the outcome. There are a lot of things people can do to more or less wipe-out the changes of going to jail - or to make the chances of leaving a traffic stop with a citation as slim as possible.
It's all about the attitude you have going into it. Think about it - have you ever gone to speak to someone - your boss - a manager at a store - anyone in a position of authority or power, and had them IMMEDIATELY be very negative before you've even had the chance to speak a word to them? Very frustrating isn't it? Perhaps you only wanted to say "Good Morning" - but your boss is already ready to bite your head-off, complaining about the weather, your late report from yesterday, etc etc.... it's awful. Traffic stops (ANY interaction with police really) - is the same. Don't ASSUME things are going to go badly - that the police officer is angry or a jerk, or that you are doomed. By being so negative, you are SETTING YOURSELF UP TO FAIL. Try to take five deep breaths before you even open your mouth, and realize that remaining calm witll have a HUGE impact on the officer and the way he treats you.
Do you want the police officer to understand that you have a disability that affects your disability? Do you have trouble communicating - listening - or understanding things that are said to you? Do you have a form of autism, an anxiety disorder or trouble hearing in one ear? TELL the officer politely.
MOST officers, if you explain up front, that you have - for example - an auditory processing problem and ask them POLITELY to give you extra time to process what they are saying - and maybe ask questions to better understand them - MOST would be willing to help you out.
This need for understanding goes both ways however: You need to keep in mind, and understand that on the side of the road- it's VERY dangerous for an officer to be out there. So maybe instead of slamming on your breaks as soon as the officer lights you up (PLEASE don't do this -EVER) - instead,you should signal - change lanes to the far right lane, then slow down, signal your intentions to pull over, and then pull over on a side-street, or into a parking lot. If you ARE on a major highway or VERY busy road and there are no exits in the immediate future- pull as far off the road-way as you can, into the grass even, so that when the police officer approaches your car, he doesn't have to stand in the roadway or near speeding vehicles to do so. That kind of thing will make an officer a lot more at-ease and safer. In turn, an officer who is not standing in traffic is more likely to be less anxious during the stop - and therefor less likely to write the ticket - see how easy that is?
The last part of this section is be GENUINE. If you want an officer to respect your disability, explain it in a clear, understandable way. It is okay to cry if you are genuinely upset- but do not expect pity or expect leniency because you are hysterical. Try to remain calm, and BE HONEST. If the officer asks you if you know why he stopped you - and u you DON'T - it's FINE to say "Honestly officer, I am not sure why you pulled me over this evening" OR "Yes officer, I realize that I was doing about fifty five miles and hour and the speed limit is actually forty five, I'm sorry." Apologizing - if you are sincere, is a nice touch. If you aren't sorry - don't say it. Being insincere is very transparent.
Part Three: The BIG CRINGE - You're being pulled over. What to do.
If you are prepared (your vehicle is registered, insured, inspected, etc - your license is valid, and your paperwork is handy and accessible, please take a deep breath. You are already ten steps ahead of the general public, and already have a great advantage. Say it to yourself: I'm not going to get a ticket. Now take a DEEP breath - and follow these steps:
1) As soon as you see an officer in a marked or unmarked patrol car behind you - signal that you are going to change lanes - and then, switch lanes - always move one lane to the right.
Often times they are NOT actually intending to pull you over, but have come up behind you as they are in a hurry, and its COMMON for a police officer, in a hurry, to suddenly appear behind you. REMAIN CALM: They may simply need to get around you to get where they are going. DO NOT SLOW DOWN or BRAKE.As a police officer who has been rushing to important calls (not all calls authorize the lights/sirens) - there's nothing worse than getting behind someone in the fast-lane that slows waaaaay down and proceeds to do ten miles UNDER the speed limit in the LEFT LANE. Just get out of the way. PLEASE. There is a GREAT chance the officer just simply wants to get where he's going. Don't move over MORE than once. If you change lanes, and then officer changes lanes behind you, don't keep changing lanes. If he moves in behind you, there's a good chance he's running your plates. Just do the speed limit, and keep your eyes on the road. Do your best to remain calm.
2) Prepare yourself - it might be your turn to be pulled over. Say it to yorself: It's not the end of the world. I'll be okay.
If the officer pulls out of a parked position and pulls in behind you, OR pulls beside you and appears to match your speed or continues to follow you after you have changed lanes or turned onto a new road, OR god forbid- ACTUALLY ACTIVATES his lights and/or siren:
A) Turn on your turn signal
B) SLOW DOWN but do NOT slam on the brakes
C) Look for a safe place that is reasonably close
NEVER EVER EVER get out of your car, for ANY REASON.
3) Stop your car in a safe place, in a reasonable amount of time.
Again - look for a side-street, or an area with a decent sized break-down lane. If there's a driveway of parking lot of a business, signal to let him know ryour intention - slow down to a crawl so he knows that you INTEND to stop.Choose an area with slower traffic, or that allows the officer as much room between your driver-side door and speeding traffic. Again: Unless instructed to - NEVER EVER open your car door, or get out of your car during a traffic stop.
4) Once stopped- roll ALL your windows down, turn the radio volume off- turn on your interior light (if its dark) - and sit - motionless- with your hands on the wheel. If you were on the phone (legally or not) - HANG UP. Do not make any calls during the stop, not even to your parents or spouse - it's very rude. .
You would be surprised how common it is for people to make a phone call in the short amount of time between being lit up ,and being stopped - people do it and they do it OFTEN, but it's VERY rude. I can't tell you how many times I've had drivers speaking to someone on the phone instead of ME at their window. I've had people as old as 28 try to put me on the phone with their spouse to explalin the ticket (just... NO. Don't ever do this). You should NOT be talking or texting while driving - don't do it during a traffic STOP either. It's incredibly rude and very much looks like you are not even remotely apologetic about breaking the law.
Ask ALL passengers to sit still and not to speak unless spoken to - and just keep everyone's hands visible. DON'T put them in the air - that's silly and unnecessary- it also looks like you are mocking the officer and the seriousness of officer safety. Just make your car interior completely visible, and remain calm and still. If you are alone, take a few deep breaths. being stopped is scar, and you are doing VERY well. Just remain calm. It's okay to cry if you really are afraid, but try to do so as calmly as possible. If you have passengers, ask them to remain still and quiet and not to speak unless spoken to. Your passenger ABSOLUTELY can cost you a ticket if they are rude or act in ways that make the officer nervous or suspicious.
5) Address all officers as "sir" or "ma'am" - or simply as "officer".Remember to be polite and genuine.
Don't be so fake-polite that you come across as hostile or snotty. Saying "Yes sir" is polite.Using SIR in the sentence fifteen times come across as very sarcastic and in-genuine. You know what I mean - MANY people "yes sir" us to death and when you do it in a condescending manner, it's quite obvious.
6) Don't start looking for, or getting *anything* (license, registration etc) until it's asked for.
It is entirely possible that the officer will approach your car, tell you that your tail light is out, to drive safely, have a nice day, and will walk away. Don't deny him that opportunity by preemptively looking for paperwork. If the officer was looking for a suspect vehicle that matches yours, but the suspect is male (and you are female)- he may realize this once he gets close and tells you "My apologies, wrong car" and then let you go. NOT ALL TRAFFIC STOPS require paperwork, so don't go getting it out before it's asked for.
NEXT- IF and WHEN the officer does ask for items, explain to him WHERE the item is that he is asking for, then get it. For example; Say "I'm going to get my insurance out of my glove box, and my license is in my purse." - then get it. Having these items HANDY and not making the officer stand near 70mph speeding cars while you search for two hours through sixteen years of registration (throw that old crap out!!) - will go a LONG way towards your NOT getting a ticket. This goes back to "be prepared" above. Know where your items are, and keep them together, in an envelope in your car. Also - but this should go without saying - if you travel with a weapon, or medications - NEVER keep these items in the same location as your paperwork. So don't keep your wallet or purse with your ID in your purse full of medications. And don't store your gun in your glove-box with your insurance and registration. Just.... DUH.
7) If it's relevant to the traffic stop, or towards your communication DURING the stop, explain that you have a disability (The short version - no need to give your life story or complete medical history - this is NOT the time or place)
Again,DO NOT GET OUT OF THE CAR FOR ANY REASON unless you are TOLD TO by the police officer. If he tells you to get out, make sure you ask EXACTLY where he wants you to go, and do exactly what he asks. Again, it's okay to CRY if you are scared- but don't work up fake tears. Be genuine and honest. Don't exaggerate your injuries or disabilities, and there's no need to tell the police officer your entire medical history if none of it is relevant to your situation. If you were speeding because you just got bad news from the doctor and you weren't paying attention - THIS is relevant. If you were speeding because you have a lead-foot - don't bring up your disability.
DO: "I'm sorry officer, I have autism and I have a difficult time understanding people when I am upset or nervous and I'm asked too many questions. Could you please ask questions one at a time and or seak slowly? I am very nervous/upset because I have never been pulled over before.(Don't say this if it's not true! It's very easy for the officer to see your driving history!!)
DON'T: Sob hysterically, yell at the officer or get overly animated or loud for any reason, tell him a bunch of irrelevant medical history especially if your idea is to cause him to be sympathetic. Don't be dishonest or exaggerate. If you're really speeding because you have IBS and a really bad stomach ache - share that info - but don't make crap up. Literally - don't do that. Don't ask for a warning. Don't whine. Don't be demanding. Don't be irrelevant -this isn't social hour. Don' ask for the officers name and badge number (you can easily get that later from dispatch on the phone if you feel its necessary). Don't complain or argue.
8) TRY to remain as calm as possible during the duration of the stop. Same with your passengers.
Seriously - the officer could be stopping you because you match the description of a car carrying a missing 70 year old grandmother - or he could have pulled you over for speeding. But either way - remaining as calm as possible will help ensure that your communication is fully clear, and that your situation is resolved quickly and peacefully. He may very well have stopped you for a traffic infraction, but most officers write three times as many warnings as they do tickets, so remain calm, polite and honest and keep positive. If you are friendly, honest and non-threatening, there's still a good chance you'll leave with no ticket.
Why do I keep telling you NOT to get out of the car? First - its unsafe. There's traffic, and many people have been hit and killed by cars during traffic tops. Secondly, existing your car for any reason during a traffic stop - ESPECIALLY if the officer is in his or her car - is VERY threatening. If you've ever watched COPS or any videos of police officer involved shootings, you'll see that this is very often the beginning of a traffic stop gone VERY VERY wrong. When officers are shot during traffic stops, its very often by someone who exited their vehicle. The ONLY time you should ever open your door is if your window is broken and you CAN'T roll it down - even then - gesture to the officer and loudly say "The WINDOW is BROKEN - I need to OPEN the DOOR so I can HEAR you." - and even then - only crack the door open to communicate - don't open your door fully. Make sure any passengers are clear on this - them opening their door could SERIOUSLY frighten the police officer and cost you a ticket.
9) Ask questions if you don't understand what's being said to you - and it doesn't hurt to apologize as long as the apology is genuine - but DO realize the side of the road is NOT a court room- it is NEVER the place to argue over the legitimacy of a law, or to debate any portion of the reason you were stopped
If you ARE getting a ticket, just close your mouth and say as little as possible except for answering questions you're asked. If you go to court, realize the entire interaction is likely being recorded on the dash cam / body mic and everything you say may be played back - so LESS is MORE.You do have the right to video-tape the stop, however, i wouldn't hold your phone up or be obnoxious/obvious. There's no reason you can't start your camera rolling and allow it to pick up the audio of the stop from your lap or arm rest -but don't fiddle with the phone while the police officer is talking to you - it's EXTREMELY rude - and no matter how young you are - DO NOT make a phone call to mommy and daddy during the traffic stop. I can't say this enough.
If the officer IS writing you a ticket, just accept it, and realize that you DO have a time and place where you can dispute the ticket - it's court -you have an option for a court date. I realize NO ONE likes to get a ticket. Hell, even AS A COP, I've gotten tickets myself, and it SUCKS, but just accept that it's part of life and driving, and if you DID commit the infraction - try to drive safer and accept that the officer MAY have saved your life or someone else s. And if you DIDN'T commit the infraction - then you can go to court, and have your day in court, and explain your side of things. The roadside is NOT the place, and ARGUING will ALWAYS make your situation worse. It's fine to EXPLAIN or to answer any questions the cop asks - but don't get argumentative. It will NEVER help- even if you're right.
It is likely that the officer will tell you this verbatim: If you feel that you have received this citation in error, please contact the court office at the phone number listed on the citation and request a court date (If the citation is for a criminal/misdemeanor infraction, you'll have a MANDATORY court date on the ticket - he will tell you this). If you have to take a ticket to court - please contact me atRedandBlueNights@gmail.com use the SUBJECT: Traffic Ticket Dispute - tell me your side of t he story, send me a copy or photo of the ticket, tell me what law you were charged with (the exact criminal code # will be on the ticket) and tell me what state the ticket was written in. I'll try my best to give you advice as to weather or not you have a case worth making, or weather you should just suck it up and pay the ticket. I hope this helps relieve some stress! I'm NOT an attorney - just a former cop with a LOT of traffic court experience. :-)
10) Know your rights. If the officer asks if he can search you car, please know that you do not have to consent to the search.
The 5th amendment says that traffic stops must be "reasonable" - keeping you for a ridiculous amount of time is against the law, so if you are stopped for a simple traffic infraction - the law states that you shouldn't be kept on the road-side for more than 15-20 minutes or so. The 5th amendment also protects us from unreasonable search and seizure - this means if you say no to a search of your vehicle, police can have a trained K-9 walk the perimeter (if there is a trained K9 in the area or not far away who can respond quickly) - If you have any illegal drug in your car, or it's BEEN in your car in the recent past, I can't help you (and no offense, but i don't want to - that's not the point of my writing these tips). You do not HAVE to consent to a vehicle search - however - if you aren't doing anything illegal and you have nothing illegal ON YOU, the majority of people DO consent to the search in my experience. Also - just from experience - the large majority of people who DO NOT consent to a search - wind up having something illegal in their vehicle. Take this as you will - but if you do not consent to a search - the police will likely be suspicious. It might not be fair..... but it is what it is.
From my personal experience - we always handed a person their ticket or written warning BEFORE asking for consent to search. Many people who were quick to say "Sure, no problem, you can search it" - we would often then thank them, and tell them not to worry about it, and send them on their way. Sometimes police officers ask to search in some kind of mind-game and they dont actually mean it. Isn't that strange? Also, sometimes we would do a quick search, and then often send the person/people on their way.
I am going to write an ENTIRE separate blog post about drug possession - prescription drugs and how you have to carry them legally - and how to keep your prescription medications safe and legally carried - but this is very relevant.If you are carrying ANY prescription medications and they are NOT in their original bottles.... or if you are carrying anyone else's medications, or if you have marijuana and your state does not LAWFULLY allow medical marijuana or there is ANY doubt whatsoever about the legality of anything within your car - please realize that consenting to a search could very well wind up with you spending the night in jail. This goes back to the beginning. And being prepared - please always carry your prescriptions in their correct bottles OR with the pharmacy paperwork - never combine pills - even of the same type - because if your current prescription is for 30 pills and you have 42 in the container - you COULD be charged for every pill above 30 that you possess. (I'm SERIOUS). While MANY disabled folks carry their spouse's medications - please realie if your spouse isn't in the car, and these are controlled substances -you can literally be charged with multiple felonies. KNOW your rights, and keep this in mind,.
11) After the interaction - with or without a ticket - secure your paperwork/items back where they belong - put your seat belt back on - thank the officer (even if he wrote you a ticket, because I assure you - your politeness will look REALLY good in court if you decide to take the ticket to court) - if you can't stomach thanking a police officer who just wrote you a ticket, try something like "please stay safe tonight").
You do not need to wait for the police officer to leave- he may actually sit in his car for a while at that exact location, so don't feel the need to wait around. . As soon as he tells you that you are finished, and gives you back your items and your warning or ticket, you may go, If you are unsure, ask him. and then pull over somewhere safe at your first opportunity to calm down, review what happened in your mind, take a break to let yourself settle down, before continuing your trip
By doing the above, you will SEVERELY reduce your chances of getting a ticket, or worse, going to jail - even if you *have* committed a terrible driving infraction.
Life at 34, as a mother, a wife, a daughter, a friend... with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, nothing is easy..but it *IS* worth it.