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The Basics of Police Traffic Stops in Washington State

Comments Off on The Basics of Police Traffic Stops in Washington State

Police traffic stops can be nerve-wracking experiences, and it is normal to feel anxious when a law enforcement officer asks you to pull over. Unfortunately, some officers take advantage of their ability to conduct these stops and may violate drivers’ rights in the process, conducting unreasonable searches without probable cause. If you are asked to pull over, it is important to protect your rights and understand what the police can and cannot do during a traffic stop.

Reasons Why the Police Can Ask You to Pull Over 

To ask a motorist to pull over, a police officer must have probable cause to make that traffic stop. Probable cause refers to the reasonable belief that an illegal act has occurred. A police officer may stop you for a number of reasons, including the following.

  • Traffic violations, such as speeding or running a red light
  • Outstanding arrest or search warrants
  • Minor driving infractions, such as failure to signal prior to a turn or driving with a broken brake light
  • Reasonable suspicion that criminal activity occurred, such as witness testimony, information from other police officers, or personal observations
  • Probable cause to conduct an arrest, such as when an officer notices signs of drunk driving

A police officer must inform you why he or she stopped you. If a police officer does not provide this information or you do not believe it constitutes probable cause, stay calm and make a mental note of everything that happens during the stop. Take this information to a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible to discuss your situation and whether or not the traffic stop is lawful.

This information is valuable for any charges you may face due to the stop. If the judge finds that the officer collected evidence without probable cause and violated your rights, the court will dismiss the evidence and may minimize or dismiss any penalties you face.

Refusing to Pull Over in Washington

If a police officer asks you to pull over, you can face serious consequences if you refuse. Attempting to elude a police officer is a Class C felony in Washington. You can face up to five years in prison, a maximum $10,000 fine, and lose certain rights with a conviction.

You should always pull over if a police officer asks you to, even if you believe the officer has no reason to stop you. Comply with the officer’s requests and take the following steps to protect yourself and your rights.

  • If you see police lights and sirens approaching you, immediately pull over to as close to the right-hand edge of the road as possible.
  • Remain in your seat until the police vehicle passes or the officer approaches your car.
  • Keep your hands visible at all times and follow the officer’s directions. He or she may ask to see your license, registration, and insurance information. It is illegal to refuse to provide your name and address during a traffic stop.
  • Continue to comply with the officer’s instructions and ask for explanations if any information is unclear.

Can the Police Search Your Car?

Police officers can only search your vehicle during a traffic stop if they have a valid search warrant, or a valid search warrant exception with probable cause. A search warrant is a court order that authorizes law enforcement to search a specific person, place, or vehicle, and the officer may pull you over if you have an outstanding search warrant. However, the warrant must define your vehicle as

An officer may also legally search your vehicle if any of the following exceptions apply to the stop.

  • You are being arrested during the traffic stop.
  • You provide valid consent to the search.
  • The officer can see (or in cases of impaired driving, smell) evidence of a crime in plain view.

If an officer searches your vehicle without a warrant, exception, or probable cause, you may be the victim of an unreasonable search. This is a violation of your constitutional rights, and the court may dismiss any evidence the officer collects during this search. Contact an attorney to discuss your legal options following the traffic stop.

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