Getting Pulled over in California: Here’s What to Do
It’s a beautiful sunny morning and for once, you got going a few minutes early because you’re planning to meet up with your best friend before class. You’re driving along obeying every rule and suddenly your bliss is shattered by a loud siren and bright flashing lights.
You’re being pulled over!
Your heart starts pounding, your hands feel sweaty, and you can barely breathe.
What do you do next?
Rafael Reynoso, Public Information Officer, California Highway Patrol—San Juan Capistrano, put together step-by-step guide for teens who find themselves pulled over by a law enforcement official.
5 Tips for Handling Traffic Stops
No. 1: Relax and stay calm. This sounds almost impossible, but here are some tips to calm yourself that can work in any stressful situation. Breathing slowly and deeply is the most-effective short-term action you can take to keep calm when you are being pulled over. Breathe in through your nose and exhale as slowly as possible through your mouth.
No. 2: Pull over. Check your right side to make sure you are proceeding safely and come to a stop at a normal pace on the right side of the road.
No. 3: Place the vehicle in park. Lower your driver and passenger side windows and wait inside your vehicle unless you are instructed to exit. If it is nighttime, turn on your dome light. Important note: Be sure to keep both hands on the steering wheel where they are clearly visible.
No. 4: Continue your deep breathing and wait for the officer to approach the vehicle.
- Listen to the officer’s instructions.
- Communicate courteously and straightforwardly to the officer.
- Tell the officer you are going to reach for your driver’s license, registration, and insurance documents.
- Ask for clarification if you don’t understand what the officer is asking you to do.
No. 5: Whether or not you receive a citation, it is important to make sure you are calm before you re-enter the roadway. Continue deep breathing. This will help to relax the panicked and anxious feelings you experience during a traffic stop. They are normal and natural; it’s your “fight or flight” response.
Understand the Process
Knowing why officers conduct traffic stops and how many stops occur may also help you to feel a little calmer in the event you do get stopped. Traffic stops are one of the primary ways that law enforcement agencies keep roads safe, which is a huge feat given that California has nearly 27 million licensed drivers. CHP’s online incident report shows that officers respond to traffic accidents or road hazards 1 to 3 times a minute, 24 hours a day. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 12% of drivers in the U.S. are pulled over each year.
A law enforcement officer in California cannot pull you over if he or she doesn’t have “probable cause” — a specific reason. However, know that the leading reason drivers are pulled over by officers is because of speeding. So take your time and keep an eye on those speed limit signs as you’re driving to school.
Other common reasons you could be pulled over include:
- Your license plate is expired or improperly attached.
- Your headlight, turn signal, tail light, or brake light isn’t working.
- You littered and the officer saw it.
Be sure you have all your legally-required information (license and proof of registration and insurance) in your car before you drive. The majority of stops do not result in any type of citation or ticket.
Above all, understand that the true purpose of traffic stops is keeping the roads safe. More than 179,000 people were injured and 2,125 people were killed in accidents on California roads in 2017. This sounds terrible, but it’s a lot less than the 254,000 people injured and 3,435 people killed in 2015. Traffic stops helped to reduce those numbers and you can do your part as well.