Traffic Stops Are Bad, But They Don’t Have to Get Worse

 

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.” While this may sound like a meaningful standard, the investigating officer doesn’t actually need to hold this belief in good faith—he just needs to assert it. In accord with 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.” So: the relevant statute requires an officer’s “good faith belief,” but binding case law asserts 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, punishable by a fine of up to $500. If you’ve never had a valid license, that’s a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by up to 60 days in jail. In the absence of a state I.D., you’re required by law to identify yourself by name, address and date of birth. Withholding this information from law enforcement is also 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 have arrived at the conclusion that the brief detention of an innocent passenger is a small price to pay for the safety of law enforcement. If you decline the instruction and start walking away, you can be charged with resisting law enforcement as a Class A misdemeanor for fleeing the scene. This is punishable by up to a year in jail.

Using this same rationale, the United States Supreme Court has likewise held that an officer can lawfully order you to exit a stopped vehicle without falling afoul of 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, and 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, and you’re also obligated to either exit or remain in the vehicle, depending on the officer’s instructions. Defying the police is a dangerous game. If you have questions about how to best handle a traffic stop, call the Marc Lopez Law Firm at 317-632-3642. We can’t predict the future, but we have an awful lot of experience.