What Not to Say When Pulled Over by a Cop
Sunday, September 19, 2010
In what he calls an "educational video" that's widely circulated on YouTube, comedian Chris Rock offers advice on what to do when you get pulled over for a traffic violation"Obey the law" he says. "Stop immediately" and "stay in your car with your hands on the wheel." Finally, "if your woman is mad at you, leave her at home. There's nothing she'd like to see more than you getting your [you-know-what] kicked."
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It's a dead-on spoof of a hard truth: Respect authority. If you don't, you increase the odds of a pricey ticket.
"Everything in that video is absolutely true," said Sgt. Matthew Koep of the South Plainfield, N.J., Police Department. "It's funny, but it's accurate."
Citizens who are generally law-abiding are likely to come into contact with the police only under two circumstances: If you're a crime victim or you get pulled over for a traffic violation.
Police officers are not out to make your life miserable, but to make sure you're following the rules of the road and not endangering yourself or those around you.
With a few exceptions, and an egregious traffic violation is top among them, cops aren't mandated to write tickets. Most would rather send you on your way with a friendly warning — that can save you time and money.
But handle the situation with an aggressive or arrogant attitude and you can expect to squeeze an expensive court date into your busy schedule.
First rule: don't argue.
"I get this all the time," said Karen Rittorno, a nine-year veteran with the Chicago Police Department. "'What are you stopping me for? I didn't do nothing.' If they try to take charge of the traffic stop, they're not going to get out of it without a ticket," she said. "We ask the questions, not them."
Accept that the police have caught you doing something that's against the law, such as speeding or gliding through a stop sign.
"All we do is react to what people do when you pull them over," said Dennis Fanning, a homicide detective and veteran officer with the Los Angeles Police Department. "We don't instigate the stuff, but we will react to you. The situation will escalate or de-escalate depending on how that person reacts."
To argue with cops is akin to calling them idiots. Don't do that. "That's implying that I pulled you over for no reason and that bothers me," Koep said.
Keep It Honest
Don't lie, either. Cops are trained to note the human characteristics of lying, including twitching and looking to the left, and they know the right questions to ask to suss out the truth.
Fanning estimates that nine out of 10 people lie to him. "It's an attack on our intelligence," he said.
Moreover, the truth can set you free. Koep recalled an incident when he pulled a young guy over for speeding.
"He looks straight at me and says, 'You know, officer, I wasn't even paying attention. I just had the best date of my life. I just met my future bride. I'm just on cloud nine right now.'
"The guy was completely serious," Koep said. "How are you going to write that guy up after that? Who makes that kind of stuff up?"
Of course, don't use pejoratives when addressing the police, unless you're eager for a ticket. But other words may backfire, too. Rittorno works in a crime-ridden section of Chicago where the majority of people she pulls over for traffic violations don't have licenses or insurance, she said.
"So I get a lot of, 'I'm sorry, baby. I didn't mean it, sweetheart,'" she said. "I hate being called 'baby' or 'sweetheart.' I'm 'officer' to you.''
The police don't like being talked over, either. "Be polite," said Chicago Officer Mike Thomas. "You have your rights as a citizen, too, but it doesn't do you any good to talk while he's talking."
Cops know that people are nervous when they get pulled over, and they expect a certain amount of jumpiness when they approach a car. Rittorno even admitted she's intimidated in the same situation. "I'm the police and I get scared if I get pulled over," she said.
But did you know they're on edge, too? You know who they are, but they don't know whether you're a good guy or a bad guy. "The only thing on his mind when he approaches you is safety," Thomas said. "You know you don't have a gun in your lap, but the officer doesn't know it."
Rittorno, for one, said she assumes everyone has a gun. "I'm always on 10," she said, referring to her high level of vigilance. "I take it down depending on their demeanor or what I see."
When those headlights go on, it's best to pull the car to the right, stay in the car, turn the interior lights on if it's dark and put your hands on the steering wheel.
Don't make any quick movements, and don't turn to grab your purse or put your hands in your pocket or under your seat to retrieve your license — until the officer instructs you to. Then, do it slowly.
Don't move to open the glove box either, until directed. And do that slowly, too. Let the police shine a light inside the box before you reach in. Many criminals hide guns in glove boxes.
"What's going to cause the situation to get worse is for the fear factor to rise in that officer," Koep said. "The officer is more likely to cut you a break as long as you can reduce that fear. …If you're friendly with me, not arguing or denying what happened, that lowers the fear factor and will make me a lot more cooperative with you."
Don't boast about who you know, either. That can infuriate cops. They consider it a veiled threat to their livelihoods. Fortunately, most municipalities have laws in place to insure that an officer is not fired or reprimanded for ticketing, say, the mayor's daughter.
Finally, never try to buy off a cop. "In those instances where they've offered me a bribe," Fanning said. "I loved making those arrests."
Jennifer Waters is a MarketWatch reporter, based in Chicago.