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What to Do If You Get Pulled Over by a Cop

Jason D. Williamson,
Deputy Director,
ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project
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July 24, 2015

There are still a lot of questions to be answered about the arrest and death of Sandra Bland, who recently died tragically after three days in a Texas jail. A video released by the Texas Department of Public Safety captured a portion of the confrontation between Bland and a police officer after she was pulled over on July 10 for a routine traffic stop. Perhaps most striking is how quickly the situation escalated, leading to the forcible arrest of Bland, and culminating in her untimely demise. It’s also a reminder of how important it is to know your legal rights, and what is and is not permissible when you are pulled over by a police officer.

There’s the law—what is legally permissible for the police officer and the motorist to do. And then there’s the sad reality of how such encounters with the police sometimes play out in practice. Given that reality, there are some things to keep in mind in order to try to prevent the situation from becoming contentious or dangerous. To be clear, as law-enforcement professionals, the police should be well-trained to de-escalate and diffuse interactions with the public whenever possible, particularly since most people don’t enjoy being pulled over, and especially in light of the already contentious relationship between the police and communities of color across the country. But here are some things for all of us to consider:

1. You have the right to remain silent. That is true whether you’ve just been temporarily detained or formally arrested. There are some instances, like during a traffic stop, where you must provide your license, registration, insurance, and name, when asked. And there are some states where you are required to answer basic identifying questions (name and address) by the police. But you’re not required to give a statement beyond that. You can simply say, “I choose not to answer that question.”


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