What Rights Does Someone Have At A Traffic Stop?

The first thing people need to understand is that you aren’t legally obligated to do a whole lot at a traffic stop. Obviously, you want to be cordial and respectful with the officer and you want to comply with their commands. However, your only legal duty in the state of Pennsylvania is to provide your license, registration, and proof of insurance. Anything beyond that, you do not have to do. You don’t have to say or provide anything else. If the police are asking you “Why did I pull you over,” you don’t have to answer that. You don’t have to speculate on what you may or may not have been doing that was illegal. Therefore, you don’t have to give them, “Well, I was speeding” or any other answer.

What I think would be appropriate to talk about here is that there are different levels of custody which some people get confused at a traffic stop. I have a lot of clients that call and say, “Well, he started questioning me and I wasn’t given any Miranda warnings.” Many people get confused because of Hollywood and television on when these rights actually apply. I think it’s important for people to know that in the state of Pennsylvania, there are three different levels of detention that police officers can use. The first is what’s known as a mere encounter.

A “mere encounter” is basically where you happen to run into a police officer on the street or maybe you’re driving down the road and there was an accident ahead and police officer’s stopping traffic and he’s redirecting traffic. This example is simply a mere encounter with the officer; the officer wasn’t looking for you, you both just happened to be there at the same time. Basically, your only obligation here to the officer is if they ask for identification, you must provide it. Other than that, you don’t have to do anything else for the officer.

The next step up is what is known as investigatory detention, also known as “Investigative Detention.” This is basically your typical traffic stop where you are pulled over. The officer has some reasonable belief that you may have committed some type of offense. They can legally investigate that offense. They might approach a car, ask for more than just the identification, and they have to have what’s known as a reasonable suspicion that some type of offense occurred. This gives them a little bit broader powers to detain you for a period of time to determine whether or not a law has been violated. They are allowed to investigate what law they believe you broke until they determine whether they have enough evidence to move forward or that there is no evidence to move forward. At that point, you are detained, but your rights have not fully kicked in at this point. Many individuals get this “investigative detention” confused with the next level up, which is called “custodial detention.” While it is true that you are being detained with “investigative detention,” it’s only for investigative purposes, and not for interrogation; which is what custodial detention is about.

“Custodial detention” is when you’ve been arrested. You may find you are not free to go and they are starting some type of interrogation at this point, which is direct questioning about the events for which you’ve been arrested for. Once that starts, you are now upgraded to custodial detention and then Miranda Rights apply upon them starting interrogation. So you can be in custodial detention and not receive Miranda Rights as long as they are not asking you questions. However, once they start interrogating you, then your rights apply where they must notify you that you have the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. Those are three different levels of detention that people should be aware of. Again, your typical traffic stop is on an investigative detention level where, whether they’ve got you for speeding or they think that maybe something bigger going on and they have to investigate it, such as a DUI offense.

With that being said, if there is a DUI offense that they believe occurred, the officer can ask you to perform different field sobriety tests. The three main field sobriety tests that they could have you form is the HGN which stands for Horizontal Gaze Nostalgia test, the One Leg Stand test, and the Walk and Turn. Now, the HGN test as it’s called has to do with following a stimulus with your eye and that helps the officer determine whether or not there has been consumption of the alcohol. Then there is the One Leg Stand where you have to stand on a leg and count, and then the Walk and Turn where you have to touch your heel to toes 9 times and turn around and come back. These field sobriety tests are not required; you do not have to perform these tests by law.

You can choose to decline to do these tests. Different reasons for that could be medical reasons, or maybe in Pennsylvania, it could be snowing or icing out, and it just won’t be safe to perform them. There are the various numbers of reasons why you could decline to do those tests. However, if the officer asks you to give a breath or blood test, then those have ramifications for declining or refusing to take those tests. But as far as the actual on the side of the road field sobriety tests, you can decline those; you are not required to do those by law.

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