Your rights after being pulled over

A police officer will often request that you get out of your vehicle after pulling you over, and most people comply without giving it a second thought. What, exactly, are your rights when a cop asks you to get out of your car?

In Missouri a police officer has the right to order you out of your car after pulling you over for almost any violation at all. If that little light above your license plate is burnt out, you can be pulled over and be forced to get out of your vehicle. You do not have a right to refuse to get out of your vehicle, and the officer can then proceed to ask you a few specific questions regardless of whether they have any reason to believe that you’re breaking the law.

Once you have exited the vehicle, the officer may do the following:

Ask you for your license and registration
require you to sit in his or her police car
ask you where you’re going and what you’re going to do there

1. License and registration

It’s a good idea to always have your license and registration in a safe and convenient location. If you fumble for your paperwork or can’t find it, officers are trained to assume that you’re intoxicated, and can use this to detain you longer, ask you more questions, and possibly search your vehicle or arrest you.

Almost everyone keeps their registration and proof of insurance in their glove compartment, but screwing around with your glove compartment with a police officer outside your door is a good way to get shot, because the glove compartment is also a convenient place to store a handgun, and this is one thing that every officer is concerned with, and rightfully so. Keep your registration and proof of insurance easily accessible in your glove compartment so you can have it out and ready before the officer walks up to your car. And sometimes it’s a good idea to leave your glove compartment open after you remove your paperwork so the officer can see that you’re not trying to hide anything in it.

2. Sitting in the police car.

A police officer in Missouri may also require you to sit in his or her police car after stopping you for a minor offense. In most cases they only do this if they suspect that you’re up to something illegal, but legally they don’t need a reason. The justification for their right to hold you in their car is to ensure the safety of the officer, an important reason, even though its legitimacy is questionable and the power it grants officers is ripe for abuse. As I said before, the officer doesn’t need a reason to make you sit in the patrol car, and they often use this power when they suspect you’re up to something and want to intimidate you into allowing them to search your vehicle or confessing to something.

It’s often a good idea to lock your car in these situations- the officer must obtain a search warrant to search your locked car, and it’s more difficult for the officer to lie and say you consented to the search. By having your license, insurance, and registration ready before the officer walks up to your car you’re all set if the officer requests you to get out of the car, and neither you nor the officer should have any reason to get back into it unless the officer has a reasonable suspicion that something illegal is going on (I mean, aside from the illegal traffic stop and violation of your constitutional rights, of course).

3. Where are you going and what are you doing?

The officer also has the right to ask where you’re going and what you’re going to do there. In most cases the “where” part is easy because you’re going home, or to work, or a friend’s house, or whatever. A short, simple, and truthful “home”, “work”, or “my friend Jack’s house” (if that is his real name, of course) is often a safe answer. If you’re going somewhere that you’d rather not mention to the officer (like, a bar, or club, or a subversive political meeting), then the negative answer “nowhere unlawful” might be good. If you’re going somewhere illegal, like if you’re going to be trespassing or vandalizing a church or something, then… well, you’re a bad, bad person and should probably atone for your life of crime.

As for what you should say when the officer asks you what you’re going to do at your destination, the best answer is usually “nothing unlawful”.

And as always, nothing in this post is intended to be specific legal advice in Missouri or anywhere else. Every traffic stop and case is unique, and if you have a question about your rights or get pulled over contact Joe Welch for a free and confidential consultation.

Originally published on September 2006.