Mechanics Of A Routine Traffic Stop

Written By: Joel Council
This note addresses the routine traffic stop where the subject may or may not receive a ticket for a simple vehicle or traffic violation, precautions to consider before and during a traffic stop, expectations from the Police Officer, and consideration of your rights. This note does not serve as legal advice, and you must always properly follow California Law, the lawful instructions of a Police Officer, the instructions located on the ticket, and the appropriate court system.

Traffic Stop
A traffic stop is a situation where a Police Officer observes probable cause or reasonable suspicion associated with you or your vehicle and initiates an investigation. For legal purposes you are considered detained during this investigation until the officer determines the outcome. You are under the control of the Police Officer, and you will be required to identify yourself per Vehicle Code 40302(a). Because this is a routine traffic stop scenario, and you are not under arrest, Police Officers are not required to give you a Miranda warning.

Factors Causing a Traffic Stop
Keep your vehicle properly maintained and in compliance with the Vehicle Code. A lot of the simple reasons for being pulled over can be avoided. The following is a partial list of common violations:
  • Burned out headlights – tail lights – brake lights – license plate lights, Vehicle Code 24252(a)
  • Window tint on the front windows, Vehicle Code 26708.5
  • No front or rear plate license plate, Vehicle Code 5200(a)
  • License plate covers, Vehicle Code 5201
  • Display of an expired registration tag, Vehicle Code 5204(a)

Observe the rules of the road while you are driving. Driving is a privilege, and the law expects us to treat it as such. If we are squared away while we are driving, we will eliminate a lot of reasons for getting pulled over. The following is a partial list of common violations:
  • Speeding, Vehicle Code 22348 - 22366
  • Failure to signal when making a turn, Vehicle Code 22108
  • Failing to obey a traffic control signal, Vehicle Code 21462
  • Failure to stop at a designated location, Vehicle Code 22450(a)
  • Illegal left or u-turn, Vehicle Code 21801
  • Driving at night with the headlights off, Vehicle Code 24250
  • Driving without a seat belt on, Vehicle Code 27315
  • Driving while operating a phone, Vehicle Code 23123 - 23124

Finally, keep your Drivers License, Vehicle Insurance Card, and Vehicle Registration current and easily accessible. I always carry my Drivers License in my wallet on my person, and carry my Vehicle Insurance Card and Vehicle Registration right on top in the glove box. You may be nervous during a stop and do not want to try to remember where your stuff is, or if you even remembered to bring it with you.

During the Traffic Stop
When the red lights come on, you are expected to pull over to the right and stop as soon as possible in accordance with the law (Vehicle Code section 21806, pulling to the right upon approach of an emergency vehicle displaying red lights). If it is not a safe place to pull over, the Officer may let you proceed until you can turn onto a quiet street or into a parking lot. If the officer starts chirping their horn or pulsing their siren, pull over immediately. Officers, especially the Highway Patrol, will also give you directions over their PA (Public Address) system with instructions. Follow them. They will pull traffic on the highway, but sometimes like to have their subjects proceed to the nearest freeway exit.

Stay in your vehicle unless otherwise directed. Police Officers have the right to ask you to step out of the vehicle during the course of their investigation.
Keep your hands visible. Officer Safety says that hands kill. If an Officer cannot see your hands, they will request you keep them in sight.
If you have blacked out windows, the Police Officer can request you role them down for Officer Safety.

Do not move around or make sudden movements. Go for your Driver’s License, Vehicle Insurance Card, and Vehicle Registration when requested. Movements are suspicious to a Police Officer, and they may think you are hiding something or going for a weapon.

Watch your attitude. You are getting pulled over for a reason. Treat the Officer with respect, and address them as “Sir”, “Ma’am”, “Deputy”, or “Officer”. Listen to and follow their lawful commands. This can go a long way and sometimes even make a difference between a warning and a ticket.

Police Officers after obtaining your information will run you through a series of databases including DMV & CAL-OP to make sure you are clear and valid and not wanted. Your driving history can be a factor in determining whether or not you get a ticket. If you have never gotten in trouble before, sometimes the Officer will let you off with a warning.

A lot of times when a Police Officer asks a question, we perceive it as a command. Consider the question(s) being asked. Pulling you over for a simple violation is a way to see if you have been drinking or if you have something illegal in the vehicle. They may ask “Do I have permission to search you or your vehicle?” Ask the Police Officer the reason for the search to see if they have Probable Cause or Reasonable Suspicion. You can always respectfully answer, “I do not consent to searches.” This is not being rude to the Police Officer, it is exercising your 4th Amendment right against illegal search and seizure. If you voluntarily consent to a search, you have given up your 4th Amendment rights, and the Police Officer will initiate a search. Keep in mind they have the right to conduct an Officer Safety pat down of your outer clothing for weapons if they have asked you to step out of the vehicle.

Watch what you say. Police officers write down your statements admitting to guilt and can cite you for admitting to something. Depending on the Officer, some will let people go for admitting to and apologizing for an infraction, while others will write the ticket based off the admission. If your case goes to court and during the traffic stop you told the Officer, “I wasn’t going 80! I was only going 75…”, this statement will be included in the Officer’s testimony to the Judge. Not admitting to guilt for a violation does not qualify as a bad attitude towards the Police Officer.

The Police Officer will return your Driver’s License, Vehicle Insurance Card, and Vehicle Registration when finished. If a ticket is issued, you will be required to sign it. Signing is not an admission of guilt, but an acknowledgement of the ticket and a promise to take care of it per the instructions on the citation.

Depending on the violation you are pulled over for, Police like to educate you on what you did wrong so that you will not repeat the behavior. Police Officers want people to be as safe as possible. Even if the Officer does decide to give you a ticket, learn from the experience, correct the problem, and educate your family and friends so that they do not make the same mistake.

The Police Officer will notify you when you are free to leave. Proceed onto the roadway when safe and have a better day.

Keep your vehicle maintained, keep your information squared away, obey the traffic laws, and know how to properly conduct yourself during a traffic stop. Simple preventative measures can save you hassle with the Police, and save time and money from having to deal with costly traffic tickets.
If you do receive a ticket, you have the right to contest it if you choose in a court of law. The next note will address the Court Process.
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