Traffic Stops

Des Moines Traffic Attorney

If you've been stopped by the police and charged with a crime, or even if you've just been stopped and are feeling a little weird about it, you may have questions about whether the police were playing "by the rules" and whether you made things worse for yourself by complying with or refusing demands they may have made.  Traffic stops are common and so are the questions that arise from them.

It's completely normal to have these questions and we're happy to go over what happened with you.

What should I do when pulled over?

Do you have a dash cam?  Turn that on.  If not, is there a recording option on your cellphone?  Turn that on.  Ideally, you get video and audio both, but even if all you get is a good audio recording, that may help you later if the bodycam/dashcam video we get from the police is mysteriously missing chunks of video or audio.

Next, stay calm.  Do you know where your license, registration, and proof of insurance are?  I hope so.  Be ready to hand them to the officer.

When can the police stop my car?

You don't have the same expectation of privacy in your car that you do in, for instance, your house.  It doesn't take very much for the police to be able to pull you over.  If the police have "reasonable suspicion" that you or someone in your car has committed a crime, they can stop you.

If/when we contest the validity of their stop, the officers will need to be able to articulate their basis for reasonable suspicion.  That means they'll have to be able to tell the court an actual reason that they pulled you over.

Can you go to jail for just a traffic stop?

Anytime the police could give you a citation for an offense, they could also arrest you instead.  So yes, you could get arrested for not wearing your seatbelt or for having too much window tint.

The police may try to leverage this -- they might tell you, for instance, that they'll just give you a citation if you cooperate, but if you make things difficult, they'll take you in.  While they do have the discretion to be able to decide whether to arrest you or not, it's kind of a hassle for them to arrest you for something like speeding or driving without a seatbelt.

Police can't search you when they just issue a citation, though, so if you have an officer who wants to give you a hard time, she or he could you on a very minor infraction to justify a search that they otherwise couldn't conduct.

Do I have to show the police my ID?

Can't drive without a license, friend.  Show them your license, registration, and proof of insurance promptly and politely when asked.

Can I argue with the police?

I mean...situationally, maybe, but it's not likely to improve your situation much.

Do I have to get out of my car when the police ask?

Yeah, you do.

Do I have to get out of the car when the police ask but I wasn't the driver?

The police can require that everyone in the car get out of the car, even if it's snowing/raining/hot out and even if it's 3 AM and you have your 6 month old in the back seat and just want to get home and go to bed after an out-of-state visit to Grandma's house.

Iowa police are usually pretty considerate, but if you have an encounter with an officer who's just determined to make your day miserable, you'll still need to go along with the officer's request that you step out of the vehicle.

Can the police pat me down if they stop me?

Yes, they can probably pat you down.

If they've had you step out of the car and they want to do a "pat-down" search, that search has to be based on something like "officer safety" (like...they're worried that you maybe have a gun.)

Thinking you're lying or seem suspicious is probably enough to let them get away with patting you down, which may seem unfair (and may well be unfair.)

If they inform you they're going to search you, your response should be -- and do make sure to tell them this in a calm, clear voice that is loud enough that it will be recorded on their body cam and on the dash cam that you hopefully have installed in your car -- that you aren't going to resist but that you do not consent to any searches.

If the police ask me to take a breath test, should I?

Depends.

Get the officers to be clear about why they're asking -- are they charging you with something?  Will there be penalties for refusing?

If the police indicate that they think you might be drinking and driving, then there will be penalties for refusing a breath test.  First, ask to call your lawyer.  Then, determine whether you're going to take the test.

Do the police have to read me my rights to ask me questions?

It depends on what questions.

If you're already under arrest, anything they ask you is custodial questioning.  Because "when am I actually under arrest?" can get a little hazy (and the cops aren't in any hurry to arrest you now if they know they can question you freely for the next few minutes without warning you and then arrest you), it's to your advantage to make them clarify.

Feel free to ask the officer "am I being detained or am I free to go?"  If they tell you you're being detained, ask whether you're under arrest.  If they tell you you're free to go, go -- and go somewhere safe.  Go home and sleep.  Go to your grandma's house and bake cookies.  Don't hang around and wait for the cops to loop back around and see whether they can find probable cause to arrest you for something.

The only time the police have to read you your rights before questioning is if you've been arrested.

How do I make the police stop questioning me?

If the police read you your rights, tell them you want an attorney.  Do not say "maybe I want an attorney."  Do not ask them if you should have an attorney.  Do not say "give me a lawyer, dawg," because some court or another will pretend that the police seriously thought you were asking for a "lawyer dog" and that they didn't know what you wanted.  Use clear language.  Tell the officer "I want an attorney and I want to remain silent."

And then remain silent.  This doesn't work if you say you want to remain silent and then keep talking.  Be quiet, even if you're bored in the cop car and even if you're really bored in jail because there is nowhere to sleep and the lights are whining and the guy next to you is talking to Invisible Abe Lincoln and there's nothing to read but a Star Wars mini-novel or Wuthering Heights.  You have the right to remain silent, so do that.

Don't worry that asking for an attorney or to remain silent makes you look guilty.  You'll look more guilty if you let them manipulate the situation.  Too many innocent people have ended up in jail because they trusted the police to be the good guys.  Sometimes, the police are the good guys.  Other times, they are not.

Is it better for me to just confess?

No.

No matter what the police tell you, they have absolutely no control over what the prosecutors charge you with.

Are they letting you go? If yes, go.  If no, do not yourself easier to convict.

When can police search my car?

The police can search your car: when they have a warrant, when they see guns or weapons or drugs or other evidence in plain view, when they're arresting you, when they're impounding your car, when they have probable cause, and **when you give them permission.**

Do not give the police permission to search your car.  If they search it anyway over your objection, there may or may not be anything that can be done, but do not give permission for a search.  Even if you know you have nothing to hide, police planting evidence to make you look guilty is something that happens in Des Moines sometimes.  Don't make yourself an easy target.

What if the police say they smell marijuana?

Iowa Courts appear to like to rely on "the smell of burnt marijuana [+ some other factor]" to support a finding that there's probable cause for a vehicle search, but in State v. Moriarty (1997), they pointed out that they haven't said that the smell of marijuana alone is inadequate.  (Nor did they say that it is adequate, just that "a majority of states" consider the smell of burnt marijuana to be adequate to justify a search of a vehicle.)

Will police search your car or your person if they claim to smell marijuana?  Maybe.  Police like to search things.

Is it okay for police to search you or your car based just on a claim of smelling marijuana?  Hard to say.  Current Iowa law allows officers to search when they smell burnt marijuana.  It likely allows them to search when they smell raw marijuana too.  Officers sometimes lie about smelling marijuana, which is very difficult to prove.  Some judges have uphold even searches in which it was plain that the officer could not possibly have smelled marijuana.

We can argue about it in court and the officer(s) will probably claim that there were additional circumstances (such as "furtive movements" or "looking nervous" or, who knows, "not looking nervous enough") that created probable cause to justify the search.

Just don't, you know, give permission to search.

Can the police use a drug dog?

Okay, so usually, the police are supposed to deal with whatever reason they had to justify a traffic stop to begin with (such as: you were speeding and they're issuing you a citation) and then let you go.  That's not always what happens, though, because Iowa courts have found that things like "nervousness" (as if anyone dealing with police is ever not nervous), "lying to police," being in a "drug area," "being confusing," and "having an air freshener" (yes, I'm serious) can support reasonable suspicion to continue a stop while a drug dog is called.

So yes, this means that if you're stopped for speeding and you have an air freshener in your car, are in the wrong part of town, or seem "nervous" around state agents who carry weapons and have a documented history of planting evidence on people to invent crimes to prosecute, the police can totally decide that you are suspicious and should have to wait for officers to call a drug dog.

And then that drug dog doing the drug dog thing can give officers probable cause for a search.  And then they can search the car.

If the officers then search and find something, we can make plenty of arguments to the Court -- that police aren't entitled to an honest answer about what you had for breakfast (or whatever) and that lying doesn't give rise to valid suspicion that you're committing a drug crime, that someone's rights to privacy shouldn't be diminished by their existence in an undefined "drug area," that having an air freshener is hardly a suspicious thing, that a good number of totally innocent people are totally confusing whenever they talk, and that police make everyone nervous -- but there's no guarantee that any of that will hold up and get the search suppressed.

Please invest in a dash cam and use it.

Call an Iowa Criminal Defense Lawyer

We can help you figure out what to do about your traffic stop in Des Moines, Polk County, Ankeny, Ames, Johnston, West Des Moines, Waukee, Saylorville, Bondurant, Altoona, Clive, Grimes, Pleasant Hill, Story County, Boone County, Marshall County, Dallas County, Jasper County, Madison County, Warren County, Marion County, Wapello County, Davis County, Ottumwa, Bloomfield, Iowa City, Council Bluffs, and the rest of Iowa.

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This blog post is for informational purposes only and should not be relied on as legal advice. Consult with a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction.  Reading this site doesn’t create an attorney-client relationship.  If you want to talk to us about representing you when you've been charged with something involving a traffic stop, please contact us at (515) 491 6128 and we’ll set up a time to talk.

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