Know your rights: legal requirements during police traffic stops

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In light of recent officer involved shootings and police traffic stops around the country turning violent, many are debating the rights of a citizen versus the legal rights of a police officer in these situations.

If you get pulled over it’s important to know your rights as a citizen, but it’s also important to realize the legal rights the police officers have when they stop you. To find out what exactly is required of a driver once they’re pulled over, we’ve asked Elmira Heights Police Department to tell us.

When an officer asks for your license, registration, and proof of insurance, you’re legally required to hand those documents over to them.

“This is standard procedure,” EHPD Chief Rick Churches said. “We have to identify you once we come up to the vehicle and we have the right to actually hold those documents, and verify whether this is in fact you, determine if this is the registration that belongs with the vehicle, and that there is insurance in effect. So we actually need to hold those documents so the law does require you to give them to us.”

If an officer starts asking questions you aren’t under a legal obligation to answer any of them.

“You don’t have to answer any questions… you’re not under an obligation at that point to say anything,” Adam Gee, an attorney at Ziff Law Firm in Elmira, said.

If an officer asks you to step out of the vehicle, you’re required by law to comply.

“The officer and his mind has established some reason why he wants you to step outside of the vehicle,” Churches said. “There’s a reasonable suspicion that he has formed as to something he’s seen in the vehicle, maybe something you said or have done during the course of this interview that you’ve done with the officer, and he feels it necessary to have you step out of the vehicle so that he can continue his interview and his investigation. So yes, you are required by law if the police officer asks you to step out of the vehicle to do so.”

The officer might ask you for permission to search your car. He is simply asking for your consent and you don’t have to give it. If he has probable cause or you’ve been arrested, he’s legally allowed to search it anyways.

“If they feel that they have the legal right to search that vehicle they’re going to do it, whether you agree to it or not,” Gee said. “If you say no and they don’t, then you know that even they don’t feel they have the right to search that vehicle.”

So you’re only legally required to give the officer your license, proof of insurance, registration, and get out of the vehicle if asked to do so. The attorney and the officers agree that it is best to just cooperate with police in these situations. That way everyone involved can stay as safe as possible.

“It’s really not the time to get into an argument,” Churches said. “If you receive a citation and the officer asks you to step outside of the vehicle and you were going to challenge that later on, there is a process to doing so whether it be through the justice system or contacting the police department administration and asking them some questions about the procedures that the officer followed.”

You are allowed to record a police officer’s interaction with you, and they are allowed to record you too. It’s best to make the officer aware of what you’re doing, and let them know you’ll be reaching for your phone or camera. You don’t ever want to make any sudden movements when stopped by a police officer. 

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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