Dealing with Police Officer: Being Pulled Over
Most people will agree: interactions with police are stressful and riddled with confusion. Even if you do have a vague idea of the laws surrounding interrogation, unlawful search and entry, etc, your mind may go blank the second those red and blue lights flash on. This article will provide information on how to confidently interact with police officers in the most common of circumstance: traffic stops. Knowing the Arizona laws on what you are and are not forced to say and do can provide not only comfort, but possible reprieve from unfair punishment at the hands of police officers.
Being pulled over is probably the most common instance of interaction with a police officer. You can be pulled over for any number of things: speeding, swerving, broken tail light, expired registration; the list goes on. The most important rule to remember is that regardless of what you are being pulled over for, pull over. Even if you do not know why you are being pulled over, if the police officer signals you with his/her lights, stop on the side of the road immediately. If you fail to heed the officer, and attempt to escape or outrun the police vehicle, you will be charged with resisting arrest, which can be considered a felony. Even if you know you are guilty, exacerbating the situation by fleeing will only add to your list of charges when you are eventually caught.
Once you have been pulled over, be as forthright as possible. Keep your hands in a visible position and be as polite as possible. If you have passengers in the vehicle, be aware that they do not have to speak. In fact, besides the required communication, you as the driver are not forced to speak either. You have the right to remain silent, which in most interactions with officers, is the best thing to be. Officers are trained in interrogation and are actively trying to charge you with a crime. Usually, the less you say the better, because it limits the amount of incriminating evidence the officer can use. This includes pleading to avoid arrest or a fine/ticket. The chances are very rare that you will successfully convince an officer to change his/her mind, and in the process, you will likely reveal damaging information. As the driver, you are, however, forced to provide the officer with a valid state identification along with the vehicle’s registration and insurance. Please note that outright silence may be interpreted as rudeness. It is in you and your passengers’ best interest to be polite and courteous in response to questions the officer is asking; just be aware of the nature of your answers, and if they would in any context be incriminating.
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits unlawful search and seizure and created the need for a federal warrant. However, this amendment is and has been subject to ambiguity in practice. The “reasons” to search can be construed under a broad spectrum, and officers can exploit the ignorance of the general citizenry in carrying out an unlawful search. In 2007, one instance of this arose in Tucson, Arizona, where a man by the name of Rodney J. Gant was charged with driving on a suspended license. After parking the car in his front lawn and being detained in the police vehicle, officers searched his car and found a weapon and a bag of cocaine. They proceeded to charge him with possession of a narcotic for sale and possession of drug paraphernalia in addition to the charge of a suspended license.
The case ‘Arizona vs Gant’ went all the way to the Supreme Court. The defense, lead by attorney Thomas Frank Jacobs, revolved around the erroneous practice to interpret the fourth amendment as “if arrest, then search.” In other words, Jacobs argued that under the current amendment, officers were able to indiscriminately search once they had a justifiable reason to pull somebody over. In this case, because Gant’s license was suspended, they were able to justify the search simply because Gant had been legally arrested. Jacob’s argument rested on the belief that a search could be done only if the officer had a probable cause to search.
Rodney Gant won the case, thus changing the wording of the amendment. Late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote on the matter: “we should simply abandon the Belton-Thornton charade of officer safety and overrule those cases. I would hold that a vehicle search incident to arrest is ipso facto ‘reasonable’ only when the object of the search is evidence of the crime for which the arrest was made, or of another crime that the officer has probable cause to believe occurred.”
If an officer attempts to search your vehicle:
Even with the laws as they stand, police officers can still exploit loopholes to search your vehicle. Most commonly, after being pulled over, an officer will ask you to step out of the vehicle. They may question you and frisk you if they suspect you to be armed. It is at this time that you may say something along the lines of: “I am not resisting, but I do not consent to a search.” The officer may then provide you evidence (if there is any) of reasonable suspicion. Reasonable suspicion could include smell or sight of any illegal contraband, among other things. However, regardless of whether you believe there may be reasonable suspicion in conjunction with the cop’s accusations, do not blindly consent to a search. Although 4th amendment laws protect your right to refuse searches, it does not force cops to make you privy to these laws. Therefore, if you consent to a cop’s supposed “reasonable suspicion,” you are surrendering your 4th amendment rights. Once again, in response to any sensitive questions or comments, you have the legal right under the 5th amendment to remain silent. Say something like: “I am exercising my 5th amendment right” in response to these questions, so as to not risk offending the officer with silence.
Often, the officer will use a tactical phrase to legally gain the right to search your vehicle. This may be something like: “Do you mind if I have a look in your vehicle?” Although this sounds like a command, especially when coming from an authority figure, it is actually just a way of tricking you into waiving your rights. Officers will exploit the innate belief that resisting search in some way implies guilt, and will use a citizen’s lack of understanding or fear of authority to meet their ends. You may simply say “I’d rather you not conduct a search without the proper warrant,” and there is legally very little an officer can do. However, resisting a search is not always the proper course of action. If you do not have contraband in your vehicle, allowing a search may expedite the process and quickly provide the officer with a guarantee of innocence.
Finally, if the officer does not comply with your 4th amendment rights and continues asking leading questions, you have the right to ask if you are being detained. Say something like: “Am I being detained, or am I free to go?” If the officer proceeds to question you, or begins to make threats like “Another officer is on his way with a warrant,” continue asking: “Am I free to go?”
If the officer still does not allow you to leave, then you are being detained. The officer may have a legal right to detain you in preparation for an arrest, or they may be doing so illegally. Either way, at this point, your best course of action is to say: “I would like to speak to a lawyer.” Continue exercising your 5th amendment rights, not saying anything unless absolutely necessary. Anything you say related to the charge will be used in court. See the article from AZ Central on how to deal with police during traffic stops.
In a DUI situation:
If an officer stops you under the accusation of driving under the influence, many of the same rules from above apply. For one, you should again exercise both the 4th and 5th amendments. Never condone a search, and never admit anything, especially related to the consumption of drugs or alcohol. Beyond these basic rules, there are a few considerations specific to DUI stops.
Coordination and Eye Tests:
Under Arizona law, nobody suspected of DUI is required to submit to coordination or eye tests. A test of this nature may involve waving a small flashlight in your eyes in an attempt to determine eye dilation along with other characteristics. Because many experts do not agree with the efficacy of these tests, and because these tests are not required under Arizona law, there is no reason to not outright refuse the administration of tests.
Preliminary Breath Tests:
Preliminary Breath Tests are performed roadside, under suspicion of DUI. Under the implied consent law through the Arizona Motor Vehicle Department, you do not legally have to submit to a portable breath test. The implied consent law will be explained in greater detail below, once an arrest has taken place. So, just to reiterate, before the arrest has been administrated, you have no legal obligation to take a ‘PBT,’ even if the officer asks. This does not, however, imply that you are immune from being arrested. Probable cause for arrest could include prior weaving in the lane, the smell of alcohol on the breath, or a visible open container. Reasons could also be based on the officer’s discretion, such as general behavior or slurred speech. Once you have been arrested for a DUI, the rules change drastically.
Chemical Tests (Blood, Urine, or Breath):
Once you have been arrested and brought to the station, the first thing you should do is ask to speak with an attorney. An attorney can provide you with specific advice on how to proceed. From there, the officer will ask you to complete either a blood, urine, or breath test to determine your blood alcohol content. It is entirely up to the officer which test he decides to administer. At this time, you may still refuse to take the test, but the repercussions for doing so increase substantially. The implied consent law essentially requires that at the time you receive your license, you are agreeing to be subject to these types of tests when under arrest. By violating the implied consent law, you are defying the Arizona Motor Vehicle Department, and are subject to their punishment. Although it differs by case, the general punishment is a one year suspension of your license.
While some disagree, an overwhelming majority of lawyers believe that you should submit to these chemical tests. While the Blood Alcohol Content may be incriminating, the refusal to submit will likely be even more incriminating in court. The State can use your refusal as essentially an admission of guilt, and you will likely end up suffering the wrath of both the Arizona Courts and the Arizona Motor Vehicle Department- two separate bodies which do not mind stacking punishments.
Interested in learning more about dealing with police officers in the state of Arizona? We’d love to hear from you! Comment below or reach out to us on our social media channels. If you need legal help regarding a matter of criminal defense, contact an experienced Phoenix defense attorney today.