You're being pulled over by a police officer. Do you know the steps you can take to minimize the odds of getting a ticket?
Ever since I was in high school, police officers of various jurisdictions have made a hobby of pulling me over. "Do you know why I pulled you over?" Of course I do. But since I became an attorney 23 years ago, I have represented hundreds of people for traffic violations in Michigan. When people hear that I do "car cases" – Lemon Law – they think of me when they get tickets while driving cars. Along the way I have spoken to police officers, prosecutors and judges and can tell you that there are things you can do which can help you – either to avoid getting a ticket altogether or to lessen the legal harm of the ticket itself. And the advice is relatively simple.
Keep in mind here that I am not addressing how to fight the ticket itself. That is a topic for another day. I am also not talking about an occasion where you got pulled over wrongfully. I am talking about where you actually did something to deserve a ticket. Here is how you deal with it.
When the flashing lights come on, pull over to the side of the road as soon as you safely can. Then, pull off to the side as far as you can so that the officer – if possible – can approach your car without having to walk in the lane of traffic. Shut your engine off. It is important that you picture the stop from the officer's point of view. While you do not enjoy this transaction, in most instances, neither does the police officer. Officers get shot in situations like this and have no idea if you are a drug-smuggling, gun-running, one-man crime wave or simply a middle-aged attorney who writes articles on what to do when you are pulled over by a police officer.
Immediately roll your window down all the way. Not half way, not an inch so you can speak through the crack. All the way. Among other things, it will show that you have nothing to hide.
If it is not broad daylight out, turn on your overhead interior light so that before the officer gets to your car, he or she can see if there are people in the backseat, in the passenger seat and, most importantly, you. You want to put the officer at ease as quickly as possible. Police officers notice these things.
Put your hands on your steering wheel at 10 and 2. Ideally, the officer will be able to see your hands while standing at the rear bumper of your car. Once you have done these things - 1) pulled over, 2) turned on the interior light, 3) rolled your window down, and 4) placed your hands on the steering wheel, DO NOTHING ELSE. Do not move, do not look around, do not start digging for your paperwork.
The officer will approach and most likely ask, "Do you know why I pulled you over?" This is the only piece of advice I will give you which police officers will disagree with but you will see why. I advise you to not confess. You ran a red light? You were speeding? My advice is to politely say, "No, I'm sorry I don't," and leave it at that. Some people will suggest you ought to say, "Yes, I ran that red light," but I don't know if "honesty" is going to help you any here. I do know that many officers will make a note on the ticket, "Driver admitted he/she ran the red light," and that statement will come back to haunt you later.
Notice that I did not say to have your license and registration ready when the officer appeared at your window. This is because getting them in any manner where your body is moving may make the officer think you are hiding something or reaching for something - and neither of those are good. Another reason is that I – and others I have spoken with – have had an officer make a comment at this point and then leave. "Did you know your license plate is hanging off with only one screw?" I have also had an officer let me slide: "You ran a red light back there. Pay attention. Good night."
If the officer asks for your license and registration, tell him or her exactly how you are going to retrieve them. "I am going to reach into my back pocket and pull out my wallet." "I need to reach into my glovebox to find my registration," and so on. Even if you have made nice-talk with the officer, he or she will still be wary of you reaching underneath yourself or into a dark spot in the car. Announcing your intentions, again, shows that you are doing what you can to put them at ease.
At this point, the officer will probably take your papers and head back to run your information through the system. Sit in your car with your hands on the wheel, leave the interior light on, and do nothing else. Do not make phone calls or fiddle with your infotainment center. Do not reorganize your glovebox. Do not decide it is a good time to clean out the loose change under your seat. While the officer may have already made the decision on writing or not writing the ticket, it can only hurt you if you act suspiciously at this point.
Why would doing any of the steps I describe help you avoid a ticket? Police officers have discretion on whether they write a ticket and for what. As we know, an officer COULD decide to throw the book at you and write you up for all kinds of stuff. Or, decide to let you go with a warning. Anything you can do to make the officer's job easier will help nudge the officer in the direction of being lenient. Instead of reckless driving, perhaps you will be written for careless. Instead of 20 over, maybe 10.
If the officer comes back with a ticket, do not argue with the officer. Do not declare, "I will see you in court!" Take the ticket, say Thank You, and move on. Signal that you are going re-enter the roadway, do so safely and go about your business. One of the over-riding themes of this and everything that preceded it is you want to make this traffic stop ordinary. You do not want the officer to remember you. If you decide to fight the ticket, with or without an attorney, you may seek a plea deal of some sort. The officer will likely be consulted. An officer may be in court on a particular day with a stack of tickets. They probably can't all be tried due to time constraints. Some will get deals, some will not. You know who gets the deals? The harmless tickets where the driver did nothing to stick out in the officer's mind.
I have been to numerous pretrial conferences where the prosecutor asked the officer if we could cut a deal. The officer looked at the ticket to remember who the person was and then turned the ticket over to see if there were any comments on the back. Comments about the driver swearing at them, talking on a cellphone during the stop, and so on. No comments is good. Even better is when the officer looks puzzled, clearly does not remember the stop, and agrees to a deal. I have also seen the officer turn the ticket over and get a look of recognition. "Oh, I remember this guy . . ." and then my job just got harder.
To summarize: When pulled over by a police officer –
-Pull over quickly and as far as safely possible
-Roll down your window completely
-Turn on your overhead interior light
-Put your hands on the steering wheel at 10 and 2
-Do not admit that you broke the law
-If asked for license and papers, announce your movements beforehand
-Sit still while waiting for the officer to return
-Do not say anything remarkable to the officer at the end of the stop
I am not saying every ticket written was righteous. I am also not saying that the foregoing will protect you if your backseat is filled with sawed-off shotguns and bundles of counterfeit currency sitting in plain view. I'm not a magician, Jim. Just an old country lawyer. But, if you get pulled over in a run-of-the-mill traffic stop, following this advice will lessen the odds of you getting a ticket and, if you still get the ticket, increase the odds that you can get some slack cut on it later should you decide to fight it in court.
Follow me on Twitter: @stevelehto
Photo by Peter Griffin
Steve Lehto has been practicing law for 23 years, specializing in consumer protection and Michigan lemon law. He wrote The Lemon Law Bible. He also wrote Chrysler's Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit's Coolest Creation and The Great American Jet Pack: The Quest for the Ultimate Individual Lift Device. He urges you to consult with an attorney in your state should you have further legal questions.