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Traffic stops: what should you do when police pull you over?

07/23/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 07/22/2016 05:59 EDT
Some high-profile, controversial incidents have brought the issue of police traffic stops to light recently, including the deaths of Jermaine Carby in Brampton, Ont., and Sandra Bland in Texas.

Police shot Carby after a traffic stop, while Bland was found dead in her cell three days after being detained after a traffic stop in Texas.

So, what rules apply when police make traffic stops?

First, here are the basics:

- Driving is considered a privilege, not a right, meaning police have wide discretion on the roads.

- Police can pull you over for no reason. "They can stop you and you don't have to have done anything wrong," says Toronto criminal defence lawyer Ryan Handlarski.

- You must pull over if an officer wants you to.

- You must give police your licence, registration and insurance information.

- You must answer a police officer's questions. Handlarski says this differs from street checks, or 'carding', where a person stopped by the police does not have to answer their questions or give identification.

- In Canada, passengers do not have to give police their identification. Police can, however, ask passengers questions. In the U.S., police can legally demand information from passengers, too.

- Police can't search your car without arresting you first, or without a warrant. This also differs wildly from our southern counterparts. In the U.S., police can search your car if they have reason to believe it contains evidence of a crime. U.S. police can even take your car apart. "When they say search your car, that means everything — including pulling the fenders off, pulling the gas tank out," says Scott Greenfield, a New York-based criminal defence lawyer.

- You must obey any lawful command a police officer gives you. 

So what do you do if you're pulled over?

It's sometimes difficult to know what to do if you get pulled over by a police officer, especially if you feel you've been pulled over for no reason. One main thing to keep in mind is that traffic stops are considered risky for police.

"They don't know if they've stopped a mass murderer or a little old lady, so consequently, they will be on guard," says Greenfield.

Some general advice:

1. Comply now, fight later​

Greenfield says you should ask yourself: do you want to get home for dinner, or do you want to fight for your rights?

He says it's better to comply with a police officer and, if needed, to file a grievance later.

"You will not win a fight with a cop on the side of the road."

Greenfield describes the 'good guy curve': he says most people don't understand how to interact with police, while criminals understand very well.

"Normal people think they're perfectly fine exercising their constitutional rights and engaging with police as equals. But police will tell them 'You're a criminal in my eyes'".

2. Be polite, calm

Greenfield advises people to keep their hands on the wheel and to not make sudden movements. 

Handlarski says to be polite and calm if you are pulled over, even though you can legally talk back at or swear at a police officer.

"But I don't think that's good advice," he says.

3. Think twice about consenting to a search

Greenfield says people should not consent to a search under any circumstance. He says if you consent, you will have no defence if police find something illegal. If police search without your consent, you have more grounds to defend yourself later.

4. Canadians in the U.S. — beware

Canadians must obey U.S. driving laws. If pulled over and arrested, the consequences could range from burdensome to disastrous.

"You're far from home … There's no one to bail you out. If you have to appear in court, that could take months if not years. You will have to be there or there will be a warrant for your arrest," says Greenfield.

But both Handlarski and Greenfield caution that no advice can ever guarantee safety.

"People who read simplistic instructions of how to survive a traffic stop often find themselves in deep trouble because the advice doesn't cover a minor twist that escalates into a tragedy," says Greenfield.

Black Lives Matter Toronto organizer Sandy Hudson says she often hears about police stopping black drivers.

She says it's difficult to give anyone advice in these situations.

"I want people to be able to cite their rights and stand up for themselves, but I'm not confident that this will always be the best thing to do."

She says it's difficult to gauge safety because there are too many factors at play in any given traffic stop.

Handlarkski said there are unfortunately misfits and bullies in the police force.

"It makes it very difficult for people in particular in areas that are lower income and more racialized," says Handlarski. 

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