No one likes being pulled over for a traffic stop.

When you see the red and blue lights flashing behind you, any notion of remaining calm goes out the window. Were you speeding? Is a tail light out? Did you come to a complete stop after reaching the intersection?

When you get pulled over, you get nervous. You’re agitated. You just want to get to where you’re going. Stay calm, and know how to protect your rights. Here are 5 things to keep in mind next time you’re pulled over.

1. “Do you know why I pulled you over?”

“No” should be your only answer to this question.

A lot of people want to make a police encounter as pleasant as possible. Being as nice as possible to a police officer is an attempt to build good rapport. Maybe if you’re nice enough to the police officer, he or she will end the traffic stop and let you go without a ticket.

But police officers ask this question to get you to admit guilt. If you ask, “was I speeding” and you were, in fact, speeding, then congratulations! You just admitted guilt. And, you probably admitted guilt on video because most police departments are using body cams or body mics to record conversations during a traffic stop. Even if you ask if you were speeding as an innocent question, the prosecutor won’t see it that way.

Telling the police officer you don’t know why he stopped you is better for your case, if you choose to fight it. Sometimes, a traffic stop is only the beginning of a police encounter. Police can only conduct lawful stops. If you admit to speeding or any other driving infraction, you just helped the police officer establish a reason for a lawful stop.

Also, knowing to say “no” will hopefully keep yourself calm as the officer approaches your car.

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2. Be careful of what you keep in plain view

The word “search” in legal terms, is very nuanced. Whether something is a “search” under the 4th Amendment depends on the context, the depth, and what is searched. But that’s a blog post for another day.

During a traffic stop, a police officer can look into your car for anything in “plain view” that looks incriminating. They look for pill bottles, alcohol bottles, drug paraphernalia, etc. Under the Plain View Doctrine, police officers can lawfully seize any evidence they observe “in plain view.”

Be careful of the “plain smells” that come out of your car, too. The smell of alcohol or weed smoke can also give a police officer enough probable cause to conduct a full-fledged search.

A note on medications: Don’t travel with prescribed drugs unless you put them in your console, glove box, or closed purse or bag. The amber color of the pill bottle in the dark interior of your car will surely be eye-catching.

Keep your drugs in the container you receive them in, too. For example, Suboxone is a opioid patch that treats both pain, and opioid dependence. It usually comes in a bulky box. It’s easier to take the Suboxone patches out of the box to take them with you if you need them. But if you are pulled over for a traffic stop, and the police officer sees Suboxone strips outside of a prescribed box, it might cause you some problems. The box proves that you have a prescription. And, it should help you escape unwanted scrutiny.

3. If you own a used car, never consent to a search

When you buy a used car, you usually look at the condition of the car, and how clean the interior is. You rarely think about who used to own the car.

You may keep your car as clean as the day you bought it. At least, on the outside. But the previous owner could have stashed small amounts of drugs or paraphernalia deep in the cushions of the back seat–where you would never think to check. Maybe you’ve reached in between the seats to make sure this isn’t the case. But drug dogs will surely find things you can’t.

But maybe there isn’t anything tucked deep in your back seat. Maybe an old woman who only drove on Sundays to church used to own your car.

Nevertheless, don’t take the risk. Never consent to a search, especially if you own a used car.

4. The “Sedan Advantage”

The 1995 Ford Contour–A truly awful car. Awful in 1995, and still awful today. It may struggle getting up hills, and it’s transmission may decide to just stop working. But it has what many other cars on the road nowadays don’t have–a closed trunk. This is what we call the “Sedan Advantage.”

Since the U.S. Supreme Court decided Arizona v. Gant in 2009, the law looks at vehicles as two different compartments. A car has a passenger compartment, and a trunk compartment. But if you own an SUV or other vehicle with an open trunk, your car may only have one compartment under the law.

Police can search your vehicle without a warrant if you’re arrested at a traffic stop. However, the Gant decision limits the search. If you’re arrested at a traffic stop, a police officer can only search areas within reaching distance in the passenger compartment of your car. This automatically excludes the trunk if you have a sedan.

A police officer can only search a trunk if he has probable cause to believe that evidence of the crime he arrested you for is inside the trunk. Thus, sedans with closed trunks prevent a police officer’s wandering eyes from peering into your trunk. This might not be the case if you have an open-trunk vehicle like an SUV.

5. Know how to properly carry your guns during a traffic stop

Note: This does not discuss the hunting exception.

South Carolina Code 16-23-20 details where you can and cannot store your guns in your car. As a general rule, you may only carry a firearm in your car:

“secured in a closed glove compartment, closed console, closed trunk, or in a closed container secured by an integral fastener and transported in a luggage compartment of the vehicle. . .”

Pay attention to the word “closed!” This is another example of the Sedan Advantage–you can keep a handgun in a closed trunk without having to worry about getting an integral fastener.

But, if you have an SUV, cross-over, hatch-back, or any other kind of car with an accessible trunk, you have to use an integral fastener, secure the gun in a container, and place it in the trunk. Your handgun can be loaded or unloaded, but it must be in a closed compartment.

If you have a Concealed Weapon Permit, the law has changed. The law used to be that you must carry your weapon on your person. The General Assembly in Columbia amended this recently. Now, if you have a CWP, you can also store it under a seat or in any open or closed container in the passenger compartment.

Most people who get in trouble with improperly carrying guns keep them in the wrong places. You shouldn’t store your gun:

  • Under your seat if you don’t have a CWP,
  • In between the seat and the console,
  • In the open compartment in a door, or
  • seat back pockets.

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Need an attorney for a traffic stop? We’re here to help! The Maron Law Group serves our clients in Charleston, SC, Mount Pleasant, SC and the Low Country area.

Contact us today for a free consultation!

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