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What should I do if a police officer pulls me over?

Remain as calm as possible, and pull over to the side of the road as quickly and safely as you can. Roll down your window, but stay in the car -- don't get out unless the officer directs you to do so. It's a good idea to turn on the interior light, turn off the engine, put your keys on the dash and place your hands on top of the steering wheel. In short, make yourself visible and do nothing that can be mistaken for a dangerous move. For example, don't reach for a purse or backpack or open the glove box unless you've asked the officer's permission, even if you are just looking for your license and registration card. The officer may think you're reaching for a weapon.

When the officer approaches your window, you may want to ask (with all the politeness you can muster) why you were stopped. If you are at all concerned that the person who stopped you is not actually a police officer (for example, if the car that pulled you over is unmarked), you should ask to see the officer's photo identification along with her badge. If you still have doubts, you can ask that the officer call a supervisor to the scene or you can request that you be allowed to follow the officer to a police station.

If a police officer pulls me over, can she search my car?

Yes, if the officer reasonably suspects criminal activity or if she fears for her safety. A solid hunch is all that's required, and the search may be valid even if the real reason behind the officer's decision to enforce a traffic law was her feeling that you were doing something illegal.

If the officer has reason to think that you pose a danger to her safety, she is allowed to search you and the immediate area around you (this may include the passenger compartment of your car and its contents -- such as bags or a briefcase -- and your glove compartment). For example, a driver who is belligerent and threatening might be asked to step out of the car for a pat-down while the passenger compartment, including a duffel bag, is searched for weapons.

If a law enforcement officer suspects that a passenger is conducting any illegal activity or holding contraband, the officer has the right to search that passenger and his or her belongings.

If my car is towed and impounded, can the police search it?

Yes. If your car is impounded, the police are allowed to conduct a thorough search of it, including its trunk and any closed containers that they find inside. This is true even if your car was towed after you parked it illegally, or if the police recover your car after it is stolen.

The police are required, however, to follow fair and standardized procedures when they search your car, and may not stop you and impound your car simply to perform a search.

Copyright 2005 Nolo


This publication and the information included in it are not intended to serve as a substitute for consultation with an attorney. Specific legal issues, concerns and conditions always require the advice of appropriate legal professionals.

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