Virginia Traffic Laws: Know Your Rights as a Driver
You’re being pulled over. What are your rights? Do you know Virginia’s traffic laws? What should you do, what do you have to do, and what should you avoid doing? Here’s a quick primer on your rights as a Virginia motorist. This isn’t advice, just a friendly reminder of what the law says in the state of Virginia.
Drivers Rights When Pulled Over in VA
Your driver’s rights when pulled over in VA depend on the reason you’re being pulled over. The type of stop – and therefore, your rights during the stop – determines what happens next.
Under the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, we are all protected from “unreasonable searches and seizures” of our persons and property. Your car is considered a rolling piece of your personal property, so you are entitled to a certain expectation of privacy in your vehicle. However, because your car can roll away, there are exceptions to your Fourth Amendment rights.
If you’ve done something that violates a public policy or goes against public safety laws, then you may forfeit your Fourth Amendment protections. If you are subjected to a search or seizure but have not done either of those two things, the evidence may be inadmissible in court. The operative word here is may. When it comes to the law, the circumstances often determine how things play out in court.
I don’t know why I was pulled over
You probably committed a moving violation. Any minor infraction – speeding, running a red light, texting while your car is moving – is justification for a police officer to pull you over. This is called a “Terry stop,” and it is perfectly legal. A Terry stop is a temporary detainment for a reasonable period of time, allowing the officer to alert you to your misconduct and determine whether you’re up to anything else.
During a Terry stop, your rights are slightly diminished. You don’t have to answer any incriminating questions, but a Virginia officer has the right to ascertain that you are who you say you are, that you own (or have the right to drive) the vehicle, that it is insured, and that you are licensed to drive it.
In Virginia, if you don’t have your driver’s license on you, you will be fined $10 unless you present a valid ID to the court before your court date (assuming you have one). If your name comes back with outstanding warrants, or your car comes back stolen, you may be in trouble. Likewise, if the officer smells alcohol or marijuana, or sees other drug paraphernalia in plain view in your car, the stop may escalate to an arrest.
Beyond the basic identifying questions, an officer does not have the right to ask you anything. If you are asked “do you know how fast you were going?” “where are you going?” or “where are you coming from?” you do not have to answer – but you should be polite in declining.
Traffic Stop Searches
An officer can search your car or your person under a few limited circumstances. If you are asked if the officer may search your car, you do not have to consent. Even if the question is worded in such a way as to make you feel you have no choice, you do. Just say, “respectfully, officer, I do not consent to a search.”
Your car may be searched if the officer has a drug dog who alerts to the presence of illegal substances, or if there is evidence of illegal activity within plain sight in the car. In these instances, the level of suspicion is elevated and the officer now has probable cause to search your vehicle, with or without your consent.
Finally, if the officer can articulate a justifiable and reasonable cause to believe you may be concealing a weapon, he may ask you to exit the car and perform a limited frisk, or search of your person. This frisk is for the safety of the officer, and is a limited search for the purpose of determining if you are carrying a weapon or are in some other way a threat to the officer’s safety.
If the officer refuses your request, you have the right to challenge the search in court (you should probably get a lawyer first).
I… may have committed a crime.
If the police have reason to suspect you’ve committed a crime, they can pull you over. You don’t have to have done something illegal in front of the officer, but the officer does need reasonable suspicion that you have committed (or are committing) a crime. For example, if your car matches the description of one seen at the scene of a bank robbery, you can be pulled over. At this point, you are still involved in a Terry stop. Once the officer has probable cause to suspect you actually have committed a crime he can place you under arrest. If you’ve been arrested, your Fourth Amendment rights against a warrantless search are further diminished.
If You Are Asked to Exit your Vehicle
You may be asked to get out of the car. If so, the officer may perform a pat-down of your body to establish that you are not armed. The officer has the right to ask you to remove from your pockets any item that feels as though it may be illegal – whether it is a weapon or not. If you are under arrest, you are obligated to do so. If you are not under arrest, the officer does not have the right to touch you or remove anything from your pocket.
Additionally, once you have been arrested, the officer may perform a search of the “passenger compartments” of your car, to determine if there is any evidence which may be destroyed, or any weapon which may threaten the officer’s personal safety. Locked spaces are off-limits, as are any spaces not within the main cabin of the vehicle (such as the trunk or gas tank). If the officer wants to look in there, there is time to get a warrant, since you are in custody and your car isn’t going anywhere.
I was ticketed. What can I do about it?
First of all, it is always wise to be polite and cooperative with police officers. If you know your rights, it’s unwise to rub it in their faces; be respectful, but exercise your right to refuse a search of your car or persons if it is appropriate.
There is nothing wrong with making an officer acquire a search warrant to search your person or property if they are required by law to do so. Being rude, uncooperative, or hostile does you no favors. Judges often ask an officer if the defendant was cooperative – in everything from a speeding ticket to a DUI case. In most instances, if the officer conveys that a defendant was cooperative, the judge relaxes and the defendant ends up better than he would have been otherwise.
Be Proactive and Follow the Your State Laws
In Virginia (and in most states) it is illegal to have anything hanging from your rearview mirror that obstructs your view of the road from any window. Although you probably won’t get pulled over for hanging your pine-tree air freshener from your rearview mirror, that little piece of cardboard is an invitation to police, basically saying “pull me over.” Once the officer has initiated a Terry stop, if you’ve been smoking marijuana or have a stolen statue in the backseat of your car, you’re going to find yourself in handcuffs pretty quickly. It is within the rights of an officer to pull you over because you have Mardi Gras beads blocking your view. Once you’re involved in a Terry stop, any other information the officer can obtain by observation may elevate the stop to a full-on arrest.
Everyone gets pulled over from time to time for being stupid in their cars. We speed when we’re late to work, forget to change our tail lights, and sometimes even fire off a quick text if we think nobody can see us. And sometimes we get away with it. But knowing – and understanding – your rights makes you a better citizen and keeps the system honest. Following the rules will keep you out of trouble and help make everyone’s life easier.