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How to Handle a Traffic Stop

Few things in this world can turn an ordinary ride home into a full-blown panic attack like seeing red and blue lights flashing in your rearview. If you’re being pulled over by law enforcement, what should you do? What must you do?

Under Indiana law, a police officer is allowed to pull you over if he “believes in good faith” that you’ve “committed an infraction or ordinance violation.” This may sound like a meaningful standard, but the investigating officer doesn’t actually need to hold this belief in good faith—he just needs to assert it.

Following the United States Supreme Court, the Indiana Court of Appeals has held that “a police officer’s subjective motives are irrelevant” and “a stop will be valid provided there is an objectively justifiable reason for it.”

In other words, the statute requires an officer’s “good faith belief,” but binding case law says that beliefs don’t actually matter. On top of that, the officer’s belief about your conduct doesn’t need to be accurate, and he doesn’t even have to tell you why he’s stopped you.

The police have no duty to disclose, but the same can’t be said for you—the driver. If you’re operating a vehicle when it’s pulled over, you’re obligated to prove that you’re licensed to drive. If you don’t have your license or permit on you, that’s a Class C infraction, which carries a maximum penalty of a $500 fine.

If you’ve never had a valid license, that’s a Class C misdemeanor, which carries a maximum penalty of 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. If you don’t have a State ID, you’re required by law to identify yourself by name, address, and date of birth. If you withhold this information from law enforcement, you can be charged with a Class C misdemeanor.

If you’re a passenger in a vehicle that’s been stopped, the rules are a little different. There’s nothing that you’re immediately obliged to do, but you should probably remain on your best behavior.

For example, if you exit the vehicle without permission, the officer can lawfully order you to get back in the car. Courts say that the brief detention of an innocent passenger is a small price to pay for the safety of police. If you decline the instruction and start walking away, you can be charged with resisting law enforcement as a Class A misdemeanor. This carries a maximum penalty of 365 days in jail and a $5,000 fine.

The United States Supreme Court has likewise held that an officer can lawfully order you to exit a stopped vehicle without falling violating the Fourth Amendment. This is true whether you’re the driver or just a passenger.

Failure to comply will likely result in the police physically removing you from the vehicle. If they have to, officers will break your window in order to get you out of the car. If you try to resist them with force, that’s also a Class A misdemeanor.

If you’re in a vehicle that’s been pulled over by police, you must identify yourself. You’re also obligated to follow the instructions of law enforcement. If you have questions about how to best handle a traffic stop, call the Marc Lopez Law Firm at 317-632-3642, and remember—always plead the 5th!