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What to expect during a traffic stop

Virginia traffic stops can happen when you least expect it and can happen to anyone. Usually, it begins with the sound of the police car sirens and flashing lights. Once a police officer asks or motions you to pull over your vehicle, you must do so immediately and safely. It is normal to feel scared and anxious when you catch the attention of law enforcement. Knowing what to expect during a traffic stop can put you in a better position to defend yourself should it lead to a citation or an arrest.

The approach

Once the officer approaches your vehicle, remain calm. They will identify themselves and ask for your license and registration, which you must provide. If you must reach for the documents in the glove compartment, then do so, but always keep your hands visible to the officer. They may also interrogate you.

The questions

The officer may ask you to identify yourself, which you should do. But you do not need to provide answers to self-incriminating questions. The following are the usual questions you can expect at a traffic stop:

  • Where are you going?
  • Where did you come from?
  • Do you know why I pulled you over?
  • Do you know how fast you were going?
  • Did you have anything to drink?
  • How many drinks have you had?
  • What is that smell?

The questions above aim to find probable cause to arrest you. They are looking for inconsistencies in your story and evidence to use against you. Because lying to an officer is illegal, you can invoke your right to remain silent. When you respond, remember always to be polite and respectful to the officer while being aware of your constitutional rights.

The search

The officer might ask to search your vehicle. In Virginia, an officer does not need a warrant to conduct a search, but they do need your consent or probable cause. Probable cause is anything objective and observable that links you to criminal activity. You can always refuse a search and calmly ask the officer if you can leave.

The arrest, citation or end of stop

A traffic stop could be an investigation of criminal activity or a suspected DUI. Nevertheless, a police officer can only pull you over for a primary offense or if they have reasonable suspicion that you committed a crime. They cannot stop your vehicle because they had a feeling or a hunch that you were driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

If they find any material or substantial evidence connecting you to a crime or proving you are driving while intoxicated, then they may arrest you. But they should still be able to justify the stop. The police officer may also issue you a ticket for minor traffic infractions, depending on your situation. In the event the officer has no evidence, then they must not detain you for longer than necessary. Otherwise, it is an illegal seizure.

If an office becomes aggressive, do not reciprocate their animosity by being resistant or argumentative. You will have a better chance of challenging the traffic stop, arrest or citation, and any constitutional rights violations with a lawyer present.