You are driving along in traffic, and suddenly flashing red and blue lights appear in your rear-view mirror.
What you do next could matter.
A traffic stop can be stressful, and sometimes dangerous, not just for the drivers but for police officers, as well.
You can manage the situation carefully by following some simple steps.
- To read this article in Spanish on La Voz, LancasterOnline's digital-only platform for covering the news and issues of our Latino community, click here.
The first steps of a traffic stop
After you see the lights and sirens:
• Acknowledge the officer by turning on your emergency flashers.
• Pull over into a safe area out of the traffic flow.
• Put your car in park, and lower your front windows. If your car is heavily tinted, lower your back windows as well.
• Stay in the car.
• If it happens at night turn on your overhead dome light.
• Leave your hands on the steering wheel and do not reach for anything in the vehicle. Ask your passengers to have their arms in view.
• Let the officer know if you are carrying any type of firearm.
How to behave
The best thing to do in this situation is to stay calm and be cooperative.
Remain in your car, with your hands on the steering wheel unless the officer tells you to do otherwise.
“Always keep your hands where the officer can see them,” Manor Township police Sgt. Carolyn K. Gundel says.
This will usually put the officer’s mind at ease. Remember the officer cannot read your mind, and doesn’t know if you're a law-abiding citizen or a criminal, and for his or her safety must assume the worst case scenario at first.
It can be tough to know exactly what to say to an officer’s queries, but whatever you do, you should not argue. Be polite and respectful, and let the officer do the talking. Wait to respond where appropriate.
How do you tell the officer you have a firearm?
If you’re carrying a gun, let the officer know but pick your words very carefully. A good option is telling the officer that you have a license to carry.
“After you let the officer know you have a permit, you should produce the permit and tell him or her where the weapon is,” says Gundel.
If you are pulled over at night by an unmarked car, turn on your four-way flashes and slow down. Call the 911-dispatch center and ask them to alert the officer that you are looking for a safe place to pull over. Otherwise, try to find a well-lit area where there are other people around.
“If the driver is concerned or worried about the legitimacy of the unmarked car, they can call the dispatch center and ask them to confirm there’s an actual officer pulling them over,” Gundel says.
You may ask an officer for identification, especially if the person who has stopped you is not in uniform or has an unmarked car. Most officers in unmarked vehicles are wearing police uniforms, and police officers always carry a photo ID card and a badge.
What to provide
You will be asked to show your driver’s license, the vehicle registration and proof of insurance. You must comply but don’t make any sudden movements.
“Most people tend to reach for the glove compartment right away,” says Gundel. “First, let the officer approach you and explain to you why he or she stopped you and what documents he needs.”
Have the paperwork together in a place that is easily accessible so you don’t have to frantically sort through your glove compartment as you look for them.
“Sometimes people put their documents in their handbags or other places but the officer doesn’t know that. He or she might think you are reaching for a weapon. Always let the officer know where you are going to search and why you are doing it,” Gundel says.
Things to know
In Pennsylvania, if you are pulled over and the officer “reasonably” believes that there are enough facts to prove that you are committing a crime, the officer has the right to search your vehicle without getting a warrant.
If you are cited for a traffic violation, you will be asked to sign the citation. Signing the citation is not an admission of guilt.
If you are guilty, you can generally pay fines online, by mail, or in person.
If you want to plead “not guilty” to the violation, you can contest the citation at a court hearing where you can present your arguments. In Pennsylvania, you must submit your plea of not guilty to the traffic court handling your case, within 10 days of receiving the traffic citation.
If you are arrested, you have the right to a lawyer. Ask for one immediately.
If you are questioned about your immigration status, you have the right to remain silent. You do not have to discuss your immigration status. If you wish to exercise that right, say so out loud.