Knowing your rights when stopped by the police

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – You’re driving along and suddenly, red flashing lights appear in the rear-view mirror.

It’s the police pulling you over.

What should you do if stopped or confronted by the police? Do you know your rights and responsibilities?

That’s a conversation many people are having given the generally chilly climate these days between police and the public.

Many times encounters between police and citizens don’t involve an arrest or search warrant which leaves a lot of gray area. It could be a routine traffic stop that brings you face to face with the law. The officer needs to look at the facts and decide how to best investigate in the interest of public safety.

If the police have some reasonable suspicion that criminal activity has taken place they can do a pat down for safety purposes. But they can’t do it randomly without “reasonable suspicion,” or it becomes a warrantless intrusion.

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Keep the police encounter short

Criminal Defense Attorney Michael Taheri
Criminal Defense Attorney Michael Taheri

Williamsville-based criminal defense lawyer Michael Taheri points out that for starters, the police have a badge, gun and are acting under the authority of the law.

“The police officer has a tremendous amount of power, “ said Taheri. “They can charge you with a crime such as a misdemeanor or a felony.”

But Taheri points out that citizens have rights under the constitution, like the right to not answer every question, or consent to a search of your vehicle.

“If you’re stopped and somebody, a police officer wants to search your vehicle and they don’t have a search warrant you don’t necessarily have to consent to that search,” Taheri says. “ A citizen doesn’t have to say I know I’ve been stopped for speeding feel free to rummage through my car and my trunk.”

There are exceptions to the search warrant. For example, if an officer sees the butt of a gun sticking out, they can search for their own safety without getting a warrant.

Taheri advises people to be cordial, polite and don’t resist arrest or obstruct.

But how do you ratchet down the stress level?

“Keep it short. Keep the engagement short,” Taheri added. ”There’s no reason that it has to escalate when it’s something as simple as give me your license, registration and insurance card.”

Police stop is generally a negative experience

Cheektowaga Police Lt. Brian Gould on patrol
Cheektowaga Police Lt. Brian Gould on patrol

Cheektowaga Police Lt. Brian Gould, a 15 year veteran, understands why people are not thrilled to see flashing red lights in the rear-view mirror.

“I’m not purposely pulling somebody over because I want to ruin their day,” Gould says. “I’m being paid to do a job. That’s what I’m out here to do. You being upset with me isn’t going to make this go any better,” Gould said.

Let’s be honest. More often than not the police stop can be a negative experience. Your mind races going down the checklist. What did I do? Will I get a ticket?

“There’s nothing positive to a motorist about a traffic stop,” Gould added. “Even if they don’t get a ticket out of it, the stress, the anxiety of being pulled over is an unpleasant situation. Even as a police officer who’s pulled over thousands of people. If I’ve done something wrong and I get pulled over you still get that little stress.”

Mutual respect needed

“Most of us aren’t messing with people for no reason,” he said. “A lot of times things escalate because of people’s actions — because of the citizen’s actions and not the police. If I don’t come at you in a negative light, or came at you yelling at you or screaming at you or disrespecting you. There’s no reason for you to come at me like that.”

Mutual respect is something that Kim Beaty, Buffalo’s deputy police commissioner, preaches to new law enforcement recruits in the training academy.

“People need to be treated with dignity and respect,” Beaty says. “We want everyone to be safe so at the end of the day we want to respect that person, and we also want to be respected for the job that we do.”

If a person feels they have been wronged by the police, the roadside stop is not the place to settle things. Complaints of abuse or improper conduct by an officer can be made to appropriate agencies and taken up in a court of law.

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