Know Your Rights During A Traffic Stop

By Reginald L. Woods, II
Staff writer

So you have been pulled over by the police for what they state to be a “routine traffic stop”… now what?


The current state of our nation has caused many black and brown people to find themselves unnerved by the current policies, procedures, and practices being utilized by law enforcement officers across our nation, and rightfully so. 

For many, this unnerving feeling continues to be stimulated by the continuous influx of videos and images on various social media and news outlet sites that depict similar encounters with police that have turned fatal. 

Just within this week, Rayshard Brooks, a 27-year-old African-American male, who was also a husband and father of four kids, was killed by an Atlanta Police Officer, in a Wendy’s parking lot in the metro Atlanta area.

Due to the reoccurrence of such encounters, various cities across our nation are now reconsidering their methods of policing (e.g. contemplating defunding their local police organizations and replacing them with a more community engaged “self-policing” program) but until then, it is important for all citizens to be aware of their rights and what they can and cannot do if they are faced with a police encounter.

Initial steps

Scenario: As you approach a four-way-traffic-stop, you notice a marked police car roughly two-car-lengths behind you. You follow the proper protocol of coming to a complete stop and checking to see if another vehicle has the right-of-way. As you begin to pull off, the marked police car turns their siren on, ordering you to pull over. You are unaware as to what you have done wrong. What should you do?

According to the ACLU, parties’ initial steps should ALWAYS be to “[stop your] car in a safe place as quickly as possible.” By doing so, you notify the officer that you are complying with their orders. If the encounter occurs at night, try to pull over in a public area that is well lit. 

The next step you should take after you have pulled over into a safe place is to “Turn off the car, turn on the internal light, open the window part way, and place your hands on the wheel. If you’re in the passenger seat, put your hands on the dashboard.”

Additionally, you should “[a]void making sudden movements, and keep your hands where the officer can see them.” The purpose of doing so is to demonstrate to the officer that you are not a threat to his/her safety. Moreover, providing the officer with full visibility of all occupants within the vehicle may remove some of the tension associated with such encounters. 

Furthermore, “[u]pon request, show police your driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance.” It is important to note, that following these steps does not guarantee that your encounter with the police will always be favorable; therefore, you must continue to practice situational awareness and be prepared to deescalate such instances if necessary.

The legal standards governing stops and searches: reasonable suspicion and probable cause—what do the two entail?

According to the Wake County Police Department’s policing policy and procedures, “traffic stops… by officers will be based on a standard of reasonable suspicion or probable cause as required by the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and statutory authority. Officers must be able to articulate specific facts, circumstances and conclusions that support law enforcement action taken.”

The Supreme Court of the United States defines reasonable suspicion as “the sort of common-sense conclusion about human behavior upon which practical people… are entitled to rely.”

In plain terms, “[an] officer must have a clear, specific, and unbiased suspicion that you committed, are committing or are about to commit a crime… They must [also] be able to point to specific, objective factors [that show] the basis for [their] suspicions, not just that you look suspicious.”

Moreover, most traffic stops are governed by the probable cause standard, which requires an officer to have “[a] strong, unbiased, factual reason for believing that you have committed a traffic violation.”

It is important to note that although an officer has probable cause to pull you over regarding a traffic violation, he/she may not have probable cause to search your vehicle unless “[they] see [something] illegal, [which] may create probable cause for them [to] search you or your car. [In addition, they] cannot search [your] trunk unless they have probable cause, a search warrant, or believe you may be armed and dangerous.”

Hence, you should not consent to a search unless the officer informs you that under the totality of the circumstances, he/she has sufficient evidence that would not frustrate your rights, nor violate the required standard of proof. 

In Kansas v. Glover, the Supreme Court of the United States of America analyzed and further emphasized the reasonable suspicion and probable cause standards required by police officers during a routine traffic stop and search by highlighting jurisprudence used in Rodriguez v. U.S., 135 S. Ct. 1609, 1616 (2015); U.S. v. Arvizu, 534 U.S. 266 (2002); and Navarette v. California, 572 U.S. 393 (2014).10

What are your rights as the driver?

As a private citizen, there are a few particular rights that you should be aware of during a traffic stop, and that may be key to you protecting your liberty, those rights are: the right to remain silent—If you wish to exercise that right, say so out loud; the right to refuse to consent to a search of yourself [or your car]…; the right to a lawyer if you are arrested. Ask for one immediately; and last but not least, regardless of [what] your immigration or citizenship status [may be], you have constitutional rights.

Do passengers in your vehicle have any rights?

In addition to those rights afforded to the driver, although not generally discussed, passengers during a traffic stop have additional rights that they too may invoke. According to, “Passengers cannot be held responsible for the driver’s conduct and are generally free to leave, unless police become suspicious of them during the course of the stop.” It is imperative that the passenger first ask the officer whether they are free to leave, merely leaving the scene without expressed permission from the detaining officer may lead to further legal issues.

As previously stated, the wide range of consequences that could, and have resulted from such encounters, makes it imperative—now more than ever—that citizens educate themselves on their rights and duties. #knowthembeforeyouneedtoinvokethem

For more information regarding your rights regarding police encounters, please visit the North Carolina ACLU website at

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