Once again, it's time for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, and every year we get questions from our clients about what they should do (and shouldn't do) when they get pulled over by police in South Dakota. This year especially, events around the country have brought heightened scrutiny to interactions between the public and members of law enforcement. It's safe to say both cops and the citizens they serve are on-edge. So, how do you exercise your rights during a police stop while also helping to maintain a safe environment for you, your passengers, the officer, and bystanders?
Before you drive:
Know where your license, registration, and insurance cards are located. Before you drive, always make sure your information is up-to-date and conveniently located within reach. You don't want to extend the length of your stop by fumbling through your glove box or center console looking for papers. Plus, cops don't love it when people are rummaging through compartments that could contain a weapon, especially if it's dark outside.
Put yourself in the position of a police officer pulling someone over. Cops have a really hard job. They spend huge portions of their day dealing with violent criminals, people under the influence of drugs and alcohol, and people with serious mental health problems. They are called on to resolve domestic disputes and be the first responders to emergencies. They deal with crime, death, drugs, and tragedy every single day. A cop faces potential danger in every situation he or she responds to, so remember that when you are pulled over. You have no idea what that cop's last call was or what his or her day has been like. For your own safety and the officer's, do your part to make the officer feel safe. How? Keep reading.
When you see emergency lights in your rear-view mirror:
Find a safe place to pull over. Safely (but as quickly as possible) pull off the road where you and the officer will be out of harm's way. Use your turn signal to show the officer that you see him, then bring your car to a complete stop.
Get ready. 1) Put the vehicle in park, 2) Roll down your window, 3) Turn off the ignition to make it easier to hear and to indicate to the officer that you do not intend to flee unexpectedly. 4) Turn off your music. 5) Start recording on your phone. Seriously, why not? Almost all police officers in South Dakota wear body cams, but they occasionally malfunction. Time and time again we retrieve critical evidence from our client's recorded interactions with law enforcement. You don't need to point your camera at the cop's face the entire time (that's a terrible idea). Instead, just set your phone down or in your pocket and let it capture the audio of your interaction. It's there if you need to pick it up to capture video. It is legal to record police officers.
Put both hands on the steering wheel, and wait. Do not start looking for your registration and insurance info. When the cop arrives at your window, you don't want to be rummaging around for something (are you reaching for a weapon or hiding drugs?) You want your hands in plain view.
Take a few deep breaths. It's normal to be nervous when you get pulled over, even if you've done nothing wrong. You may need to assert your rights, and to do that, you need to have your wits about you so you can remember what you read in this blog post. So, take a few deep breaths.
Be polite. You don't have to be happy about being pulled over, but you shouldn't be a jerk about it. Plus, if you act like a jerk, there's a good chance the officer will too, and she has the ability to make your day a lot more unpleasant than you do hers. Be smart here. It's in your own interests to be polite. Plus, police always document in their reports whether you were "cooperative" or not, and prosecutors will often use that information in deciding whether to cut you a break in a close call.
Inform the officer if you are carrying a weapon. If you are legally in possession of a firearm (and even if you aren't), it's a good idea to let the officer know right away that you have a weapon. "Good evening, Officer. I would like you to know that I have a concealed handgun on my hip." Aren't you glad your hands are on the steering wheel? So is the cop. He or she will explain to you what your next steps are, which will usually be retrieving the weapon and placing it in a safe place for the remainder of your interaction.
Retrieve your documents when asked. At some point, the officer is going to ask you for your license, proof of insurance, and registration. Once she asks, tell her where those items are and how you’re going to retrieve them. For example, if your drivers license is in your back pocket, tell the officer where it is and that you are going to reach for it.
Don't admit guilt. One of the first questions you should expect to be asked is, "do you know why I pulled you over?" Your only answer should be "no." If you admit fault, it's game over.
For information on how to exercise your rights during a police stop, including whether you should blow into a breathalyzer, perform field sobriety tests, consent to a blood draw, and other questions, see upcoming blog posts.
Be safe during the Rally. We see cases all the time where criminal charges are dropped because a cop didn't play by the rules. If you think the police pulled you over without reasonable suspicion or if you'd like us to examine the circumstances of your stop to make sure your constitutional rights were not violated, call one of the attorneys at nelson law for free consultation.