Universal principles of traffic stops

There are a few fairly universal principles regarding car stop search and seizure law.  Unfortunately, when you are stopped, you don’t get to make a decision as to whether or not you were stopped fairly, or if there is a good legal reason (“justifiable cause”) for the stop.  That decision is made by a judge or a jury, at hearing or at trial.  What should you do if you are stopped and you believe there is no lawful basis for the stop?

Here are a few basic general tips on how best to handle yourself when stopped by the police:


  1. Remain calm;
  2. Be polite, and keep your hands in plain view, where the officer can see them;
  3. Provide your license and registration when asked;
  4. If the officer questions you, you don’t have to answer; politely decline if you want;
  5. If the officer asks you to exit the vehicle, you should do so;
  6. If the officer asks you if you can perform field sobriety tests, you don’t have to; politely decline to answer if you want;
  7. If the officer pats you down (performs a quick pat search of the exterior of your pockets and clothing), let him do so;
  8. If the officer asks to search your vehicle, you don’t have to consent, decline if you want; and
  9. If the officer asks you questions, and you don’t want to answer, decline to answer without your attorney present.


  1. Don’t tell the officer that you know your rights;
  2. Don’t argue, justify your behavior or blame the officer; and
  3. Don’t make any sudden movements.

This is essential, common sense, basic and practice guidance, used to help prevent your stop from becoming more unpleasant than necessary.  None of this advice will prevent a police officer from investigating and arresting you or searching your car if the officer wants to.  

Even if the officer lacks probable cause to arrest or search, the officer can stop you temporarily to investigate further if there is articulable suspicion that a person has committed or is about to commit a crime. Terry v Ohio, 392 US 1 (1968).  It is well settled that police inquiry in routine traffic stop must end on production of valid license and registration unless police have grounds for inferring that either operator or passengers involved in crime or engaged in other suspicious conduct, Commonwealth v. Ferrara, 376 Mass. 502, 505 (1978).  This means that an officer can stop and temporarily keep you for short period of time, even where no traffic violation and no probable cause to arrest you, as long as the officer has a good reason why he suspects criminal activity.  On the other hand, the stop ends after you produce a valid license and registration if there is no other reason why the police officer should detain you.  

Whether or not a police officer has a right to detain you isn’t important in those precious moments when you’re in the middle of that nerve wracking traffic stop.  The main things to remember are, stay calm, and remember that you don’t have to speak to the officer during a stop if you don’t want to and you don’t need to consent to a car search.  If you talk to the police officer or consent to a search, you may be waiving constitutional protections provided by the Fifth and Fourth Amendments of the US Constitution.


If you are kept for longer than necessary or arrested, you have the right to speak to an attorney before any officer questions you.  This is a right provided by the Sixth Amendment of the US Constitution

There is more to it, then this.  This is only a little bit of the basics.  To read more detail on how the Commonwealth of Massachusetts suggests you conduct yourself during a traffic stop, read the general guidelines if stopped by a police officer, Massachusetts RMV Driver’s Manual, Chapter 5.

The Rhode Island State Police has some advice on their website called, “What to do if you are asked to pull over.”

If you have been stopped and ticketed or arrested, contact your attorney as soon as possible.  If you don’t have an attorney, feel free to call me.


ABOUT ME:  Attorney Kelly is an attorney in good standing, licensed to practice in both the Federal District and State Courts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Her law practice is focused on consumer debt, finance, bankruptcy and District Court matters. Attorney Kelly is experienced in both criminal and civil trial work. On a personal note, Attorney Kelly enjoys writing and other things, like conservation and agriculture.

To find out more visit www.attorneykelly.com, or call us at (508) 784-1444.


NOTICE:  Attorney Kelly does NOT provide legal advice to anyone via social media or anywhere over the Internet.  Any and all electronic posts and writings, by Attorney Kelly, does NOT establish any type of attorney-client relationship, whatsoever, neither perceived, actual, material, implied or other.  We can not stress enough, if you need personal legal advice, always see your attorney.  Do not rely upon Attorney Kelly’s posts, writings or any Internet information on websites or social media for your own personal legal advice.  Seek legal advice and representation from your own personal attorney.

Copyright © 2015, 2016 by Ginger B. Kelly, Esq., all rights reserved.

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